On August 16, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the creation of the Iran Action Group to direct, review and coordinate all aspects of the State Department’s Iran-related activity. “Our hope is that one day soon we can reach a new agreement with Iran. But we must see major changes in the regime’s behavior both inside and outside of its borders,” said Pompeo. Brian Hook, who previously served as the Director of Policy Planning, was selected to lead the group with the title of Special Representative for Iran. “Our new strategy addresses all manifestations of the Iranian threat and the new Iran Action Group will be focused on implementing that strategy,” explained Hook. The following are key statements by Hook.
Remarks to Asharq al-Awsat newspaper
“If (Esmail) Ghaani follows the same path of killing Americans then he will meet the same fate."
“The president has made clear for years that any attacks against American personnel or interests in the region will be met with a decisive response."
“This is not a new threat,” Hook continued. “I think the regime now understands that they cannot attack America at will, and expect to get away with it. So we will hold the regime and its proxies accountable for any attacks on Americans, or on American interests in the region.”
—Jan. 23, 2020, in an interview
Remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations
“Today, I will discuss the success of the economic pressure pillar of our Iran strategy by examining Iran’s economy, the regime’s budget, its access to foreign exchange reserves, and the role of corruption.
“More than a year after the re-imposition of American sanctions, the United States is depriving this regime of historic levels of revenue. Our sanctions are meaningfully targeting the revenue streams the clerics rely on to foment violence and suffering in Iran, throughout the region, and around the world.
“Our economic pressure is one of three core pillars of our Iran strategy, in addition to diplomatic isolation and our ongoing efforts to restore military deterrence in the region. Our objective remains a comprehensive agreement with Iran that reflects the 12 points Secretary Pompeo has laid out. This includes ending enrichment, the proliferation of ballistic missiles and the development of nuclear-capable missile systems, support to terrorist proxies and the detention of dual and foreign nationals.
“Because of our pressure, Iran’s leaders are facing a decision they have not confronted seriously since the end of the 1980s: either pursue negotiations and compromise, or manage economic collapse. Our pressure will continue to deny this regime revenue and disrupt its financial networks until we have secured a comprehensive agreement.
“Iran’s economy is opaque by design. The complex revenue schemes and shadow financial networks that the Supreme Leader oversees enrich the regime’s ruling class while undermining opportunity for everyone else. These networks divert resources away from the people and fund a range of illicit and destabilizing activities, from terrorist groups in Lebanon and proxy wars in Yemen to Iran’s threatening ballistic missile and nuclear programs.
“The clerical establishment prefers the current system to meaningful changes that would benefit its people. Iran’s clerics have had four decades to build an economy based on transparency and free market principles. Yet they have deliberately chosen to take a different path.
“They instead use the nation’s economy as a bank to finance their revolution, thereby exposing it to our financial pressure.
“Recently, Iran’s clerics derailed efforts to adopt international anti-money laundering and counter terrorism-financing standards that would bring transparency to Iran’s banking sector. To almost every country in the world, these standards are normal and commonsense.
“But Iran’s leaders view them as unnecessary and imposing. They continue to resist transparency because they know it will expose them to real scrutiny, which would confirm what we already know: that this regime uses the Iranian economy to finance and spread its violent revolution, and make the regime elite richer.
“This is in part why President Trump re-imposed sanctions on Iran: to deprive the clerical rulers of revenue, disrupt their financial networks, and create the pressure necessary to compel negotiations.
“When he did, many experts said that United States alone could not and would not bring sufficient pressure to bear on this regime’s economic interests. They also said our sanctions would cause protests against the US and that the Iranian people would rally around the flag.
“These experts were wrong. The sanctions we have imposed on the Iranian regime are the toughest ever, they are working, and the Iranian people are blaming the regime.
Sanctions on Iran’s oil sector are the core of our economic pressure.
“This regime has relied on oil more than any other export to support its destabilizing activities. Our sanctions on Iran’s oil sector, which were only fully imposed in May, have driven Iran’s oil exports to levels not seen since the onset of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. Iran’s oil exports have decreased by more than two million barrels per day, driving down Iran’s revenue from oil by more than 80 percent.
“This amounts to a loss of more than $30 billion per year, with a total loss likely exceeding $50 billion since May 2018.
“Since Iran can no longer find legitimate buyers for its crude oil, it is turning increasingly to evasive practices such as falsifying documents and turning off AIS transponders. This strategy will fail to make up for its declining exports. The United States is working closely with nations and industry to educate the maritime and energy sectors about Iran’s evasive practices and potential exposure to U.S. sanctions if they fail to do their diligence. As we have said, if we see sanctionable activity, we will take action.
“Iran is also running out of options to store the oil it is unable to export. This has forced the regime to shut in its production and increase the amount of crude oil and condensate it sends to refineries and petrochemical facilities.
“The regime is hoping to compensate for the fall in crude exports by increasing its output of refined products, but here too our enforcement is adapting and we are confident that Iran’s refined product and petrochemical customers will continue to stay away once they are made aware of the risks. Even as Iran tries to increase its exports of refined products, the regime is facing serious logistical constraints. Iranian tankers are increasingly being used as floating storage, making them unavailable to transport refined products to begin with.
“Our sanctions are also restricting investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector, which will have a lasting impact beyond the immediate loss of revenue from reduced exports. Both upstream and downstream investments in Iran’s oil and gas sector have stopped. Foreign investors have almost entirely pulled out of Iran due to the risks and billions in investment has been lost.
“While domestic Iranian companies are taking over some of the projects left behind, they are not able to replicate the role of more experienced international oil companies and investors.
“As time goes on, Iran will not be able to make the investments it needs to maintain long-term energy production. The longer the regime chooses to reject diplomacy, the greater the impact will be on its future oil and gas production and revenues.
“The decline in energy exports has had profound secondary effects in three key areas, which I want to discuss in more detail: Iran’s economic growth, the regime’s annual budget, and its access to foreign currency.
“First, on the economy. Last year, Iran’s economy contracted by about five percent. This year, Iran’s economy will likely shrink by at least 9.5 percent, according to the IMF. This would be the steepest single-year decline in more than 30 years. Some analysts have projected an even steeper contraction, possibly as high as 12 to 14 percent. This would put the economy on the verge of a depression.
“The IMF and World Bank’s projections place Iran’s economy as the third worst in the world, behind only Libya and Venezuela.
“However, the assumptions underlying these already dire projections may actually be overly optimistic. The IMF has assumed that Iran will average oil exports of 600,000 barrels per day. This vastly exceeds Iran’s oil exports since May, and is beyond what Iran will export under our sanctions.
“The IMF, and others, have repeatedly revised down their growth projections for Iran over the course of the last year. This will almost certainly happen again.
“Inflation has also increased and is currently running at 40 percent overall. This is affecting the price of essential household goods significantly. To make matters worse, while Iran manages an official exchange rate, the parallel open market exchange rate shows over 50 percent depreciation since May 2018.
“The large gap between official and open market exchange rates creates corrupt arbitrage opportunities that well-connected importers exploit for private gain. Yet when ordinary Iranians seek to purchase foreign goods with their weakened currency, they are now paying a steep premium.
“Iran’s declining growth is having ripple effects throughout the economy. Pension funds are coming under increasing strain. Of the 18 existing retirement funds in Iran, 17 are in the red. As Iran’s elderly population continues to grow and employment stagnates, these funds will come under greater pressure.
“Many analysts have compared the current economic decline under this regime’s watch to the prior round of sanctions imposed before the nuclear deal was finalized. However, Iran’s recession is far worse today than in 2012, when its economy contracted by six percent. The more appropriate comparison, as the data suggests, is the opening phase of the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-81, which severely disrupted Iran’s oil production and export.
“The second major impact of low exports is unprecedented pressure on this regime’s budget. Due to the staggering loss of oil revenue, it is nearly impossible for the regime to put a credible budget forward. Oil export revenues typically comprise at least 30 percent of Iran’s revenues. Our sanctions are bringing this figure closer to zero. After initially assuming oil exports would average 1.5 million barrels per day in fiscal year 2019, the regime later revised this figure down to only 300,000.
“It is surprising then that the draft budget released just this month for Iran’s next fiscal year assumes oil exports will average around one million barrels per day. This is an unrealistic forecast. Iran’s budget proposal is so off base that it spooked the Iranian market. The rial hit a six-month low against the dollar shortly after the proposal was released.
“Iran has attempted over the past year to respond to budget shortfalls by cutting spending and resorting to stopgap measures to raise additional revenue. These include raiding its sovereign wealth fund, issuing even more domestic debt, attempting to privatize additional state assets, and slashing subsidies.
“Recently, Iran’s financial desperation forced the government to raise gasoline prices in an effort to save money and increase exports. As the protests last month demonstrated, it will be difficult for the regime to implement further subsidy cuts without sparking even greater frustration among Iranians. So where will the regime find money?
“It would make more sense for the regime to close the revenue gap by plugging holes in tax collection from Iran’s wealthy elite or expanding the tax base to include religious and IRGC-linked holding companies that dominate Iran’s economy, yet pay no taxes. The regime is choosing instead to shift the burden onto the middle class.
“The regime must also grapple with how to keep its subsidized industries afloat as it struggles to find revenue. Iran is one of the most heavily subsidized nations in the world. More than 70 percent of Iran’s budget expenditures are allocated to underperforming state-owned enterprises, which make up the bulk of Iran’s so-called ‘diversified economy’.
“An audit by the Supreme Audit Court for 2016 to 2017 showed that 162 of Iran’s 377 State Owned Enterprises were ‘economically unviable.’ The real number is likely higher. This suggests that as Iran’s oil sector shrinks, the Iranian regime will be unable to continue subsidizing its vast sector of underperforming non-oil industries, just as it is struggling to subsidize gas prices.
“The government is running out of emergency measures to take or off-budget funds to raid. Moving forward, it will be less able to respond to continued pressure. No creative number crunching can change the fact that this regime’s coffers are running dry. Short-term fixes will exacerbate inflation and do nothing to address structural deficiencies in the economy.
“If the regime insists on continuing to divert resources to fund terrorist activity or ballistic missile development, ultimately it will be forced to choose between printing money or delaying spending on development, salaries, and benefits.
“The Iranian people have been demanding for a long time that the regime stop investing in wars and terrorism abroad, and start spending more at home. Now is an opportunity for the regime to do that, or face even greater pressure from its own people.
“Finally, as exports decline, the third major impact on the regime has been reduced access to foreign currency. The regime is already struggling to acquire the foreign currency it needs to procure imports such as machinery, industrial inputs, and consumer goods.
“Prior to the re-imposition of sanctions, Iran relied on oil exports for around 50 percent of its foreign currency earnings. Much of the remainder came from petrochemicals, metals, and refined petroleum products. All of these exports are now subject to sanctions.
“According to U.S. government analysis and newly declassified information I am able to share with you, Iran currently has around $100 billion in foreign exchange reserves. Of that, only about ten percent (or $10 billion) is immediately accessible to Iranian authorities. Many experts have failed to appreciate the difference between reserves and access to reserves. That difference is $90 billion. Given the current sanctions on all of Iran’s top revenue generating exports, this is simply not sustainable for the regime.
“The fact that Iran’s access to foreign currency is declining is all the more dire given last year’s collapse in the rial’s value. The rial has fallen over 50 percent at the market exchange rate since May 8, 2018.
“Authorities may be compelled to spend reserves to prevent further depreciation as pressures mount on the rial, even as the regime is increasingly seeking to protect its dwindling accessible foreign currency reserves. By the end of October, Iran’s Commerce Ministry had banned the import of over 1,500 goods, ostensibly to reduce pressures to spend foreign currency.
“The Iranian regime, not the United States, is responsible for the systemic deficiencies in its economy that rob the Iranian people of their wealth and enable Iran’s clerics to spread terror around the world.
“Although Iran’s clerics promised economic prosperity and social equality after the Revolution, the Iranian people know all too well that neither have been delivered.
“Massive clerical hedge funds, or so-called charitable foundations, worth tens of billions are just one aspect of Iran’s dark economy. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has its tentacles in nearly every sector of the country’s economy. This is despite a strong declaration from the regime’s first Supreme Leader, who cautioned that the IRGC should stay out of politics and the economy. Quite the opposite has happened.
“The IRGC’s economic network thrives on opacity and malfeasance. It distorts the Iranian economy and diverts public wealth and resources to terrorism, missile development, missile proliferation, and regional wars. Estimates suggest that a majority of Iran’s economy is controlled by a small number of entities linked directly to the regime. The IRGC alone generates tens of billions in revenue through Iran’s shadow economy. How much of this do you think makes its way to the Iranian people?
“The Iranian people have had enough. Hundreds of thousands of them recently took to the streets in one of the largest protest movements in the Islamic Republic’s history. In cities around the country, Iranians joined to demand accountability, reform, and transparency. Many were killed, many were injured, and many were jailed.
“The Supreme Leader dismissed the protestors as “thugs”, but the real thugs are the security officials who fired on unarmed protestors and committed massacres. The Iranian people understand better than most that their government’s policies are the root cause of Iran’s economic stagnation. When they peacefully demand a better life and a more representative government, they are mowed down and brutally silenced.
“The regime has simply lost all credibility. Again, it has only itself to blame. Rather than root out corruption and champion reform, the Islamic Republic rewards corrupt officials and continues its shady self-dealings.
“Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf is a perfect example. As a former IRGC commander and three-time Tehran City Mayor, he has stolen from Iranians with impunity. During his 12-year tenure overseeing Tehran’s municipal affairs, he has been accused of significant financial corruption, including diverting municipal funds towards his presidential election bids and selling valuable city properties and land at a fraction of their cost to regime insiders.
“Iranians have even paid with blood for Qalibaf’s corruption; many hold him responsible for the collapse of Tehran’s iconic Plasco building in 2017, which killed dozens. When he was voted out of as Tehran Mayor in 2017, rather than being held accountable for his long-record of suspected corruption, he was instead appointed by the Supreme Leader to the Expediency Council.
“In this position, he has been able to influence the parliament’s legislative bills with no transparency. And now, after three failed presidential campaigns, he is running for the February parliamentary elections in a rigged process where the regime pre-determines the pool of acceptable candidates.
“In another example, Labor Minister Ali Rabiei was impeached in August 2018 amid widespread allegations of corruption, falsifying unemployment statistics, and bribing officials to keep his post. Several months after he was ousted, Rouhani appointed him to serve as the government spokesperson.
“These officials were all appointed to positions of authority despite allegations of corruption. This gets to the heart of the problem: the regime’s failure to root out corruption because its leaders benefit from it.
“After 40 years, the autocratic rule of the ayatollahs is proving to be an economic catastrophe for the Iranian people. It has robbed Iranians of what should have been decades of progress and prosperity.
“To summarize, exports are down, the economy is in deep contraction, the budget is facing unprecedented pressures it cannot fix, and access to foreign reserves is minimal. Meanwhile, corruption runs rampant.
“Iran’s leaders – and they alone – bear responsibility for how they choose to spend the Iranian people’s money and for the state of their nation’s economy and the stagnation of the Iranian people’s livelihoods that result.
“Our economic pressure is holding this regime accountable to its people and for its actions. With the ultimate objective of creating the conditions for negotiations, our pressure is exposing this regime’s corruption, revealing its gross mismanagement, and holding accountable those privileged insiders who have for decades profited on the backs of the proud Iranian people.
“Only once we seriously and credibly threaten this regime’s economic interests, as we are now doing for the first time, can we build the leverage needed for meaningful negotiations. This regime will not change its behavior or stop weaponizing the Iranian economy to advance its expansionism absent pressure from the United States.
“All nations must recognize this reality and take their own actions to hold the Iranian regime accountable. Rather than contemplating bailouts or even greater investments, which will only fuel Iran’s support to terrorism or its destabilizing missile development, nations must target the resources that this regime uses to fund the activities we all oppose.
“Now is not the time to make accommodations for Tehran; we have done that for 40 years without success. Now is the time to challenge its behavior.
“Continuing to provide economic benefits to the Iranian regime at a time when its own people are calling for a change in its behavior is irresponsible. It undermines their trust and misses an historic opportunity to comprehensively address the many threats posed by Iran.”
Remarks on Protest Crackdown, Intervention in Yemen
MR HOOK: Good morning. I have three announcements today on Iran, but I will first start by addressing the atrocities the Iranian regime has committed against its own people. On November 16th, protests were spreading throughout the country. In Mahshahr, a city in southwest Iran, a number of Iranian demonstrators blocked a road. The State Department has received videos of what happened next. Without warning, the IRGC opened fire on the protesters, killing several people. Many of the protesters fled to nearby marshlands to escape. The IRGC tracked them down and surrounded them with machine guns mounted on trucks. They then sprayed the protesters with bullets. Between the rounds of machine gun fire, the screams of the victims can be heard. In this one incident alone, the regime murdered as many as a hundred Iranians and possibly more. When it was over, the regime loaded the bodies into trucks. We do not yet know where these bodies went, but we are learning more and more about how the Iranian regime treats its own people.
We have seen reports of many hundreds more killed in and around Tehran. And as the truth is trickling out of Iran, it appears the regime could have murdered over a thousand Iranian citizens since the protests began. We cannot be certain because the regime blocks information. Among those murdered are at least a dozen children, including 13 and 14-year-olds. We have received reports from family members of victims who tried to recover the bodies. The authorities demanded that the families first pay the cost of the bullets they used. In many cases, authorities would not hand over the bodies until their family promised not to hold public funerals.
Many thousands of Iranians have been wounded, and at least 7,000 protesters have been detained in Iran’s prisons. Many of these protesters have been sent to two prisons, the Great Tehran Penitentiary and Qarchak Prison. Today Secretary Pompeo has determined these entities meet the criteria for gross human rights violations set out in CAATSA, and the State Department is submitting to Congress the names of these entities.
The Great Tehran Penitentiary is known for is inhumane living conditions, which consist of unsanitary and crowded corridors, rodent infestations, insufficient food, water, and medical care. We have seen reports that protesters have been subject to abuse and mistreatment during interrogations, arbitrary beatings, and rape. Qarchak Prison is Iran’s largest women’s prison, and also holds many members of religious minority communities. It too is known for unbearable conditions, including regular assaults and inappropriate behavior of prison guards towards women, chronic lack of water, unsanitary living spaces, and an environment that enables rape and murder.
The United States calls for the immediate release of all protesters detained in prison, as well as all the political prisoners currently held by the regime.
Now is the time for all nations to stand with the Iranian people, diplomatically isolate the regime, and sanction those officials who are responsible for murdering innocent Iranians.
There has been overwhelming support for the Iranian people by the American people. It is clear there is a bipartisan consensus that the regime’s treatment of the Iranian people is abhorrent and unacceptable. We are unified here in the United States, and the international community likewise should be unified and support the Iranian people.
These protests have made clear what Secretary Pompeo and I have been saying for quite some time: The Iranian people want the regime to focus on investing in people, not proxies. They are sick of the regime squandering its wealth on proxy warfare, which leads only to economic pressure and diplomatic isolation. Unfortunately, this is exactly what the Iranian regime continues to do, even while the Iranian people were filling the streets, calling for an end to sectarian adventurism.
On November 25th, a U.S. warship conducted a flag verification boarding in international waters off the coast of Yemen. We interdicted a significant hoard of weapons and missile parts, evidently of Iranian origin. As you can see from the images behind me, the seizure includes sophisticated weapons, sophisticated components of anti-ship cruise missiles, land attack cruise missiles, air defense missiles, and anti-tank missiles. The vessel reportedly was heading to Yemen to deliver these weapons. The weapon components comprise the most sophisticated weapons seized by the U.S. Navy to date during the Yemen conflict. I want to congratulate the U.S. Armed Forces and the U.S. Coast Guard for this important interdiction.
This discovery is yet more proof of Iran’s efforts to inflame conflicts in the region by proliferating deadly weapons to its proxies. It is also further evidence of how Iran repeatedly violates the UN arms embargo which has been in place for over a decade.
We should recall that the Houthis proposed a cessation of missile and air attacks with Saudi Arabia just days after the Iranians struck Saudi oil installations on September 14th. The Houthis’ de-escalation proposal, which the Saudis are responding to, shows that Iran clearly does not speak for the Houthis, nor have the best interests of the Yemeni people at heart. Iran is trying to prolong Yemen’s civil war to project power. Iran should follow the calls of its own people and end its involvement in Yemen. The Yemeni people have suffered far too long, and Iran has no legitimate interests in Yemen.
Also relating to Yemen, I am announcing today that the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program is offering up to $15 million for information on the financial activities, networks, and associates of Abdul Reza Shahlai. He is a Yemen-based high-ranking commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force. This is a part of the Rewards for Justice program for information leading to the disruption of IRGC operations. Shahlai has a long history of attacks Americans and our allies globally. He planned multiple assassinations of coalition forces in Iraq, provided weapons and explosives to violent Shia extremist groups, and planned the January 20th, 2007 attack in Karbala that killed five American soldiers and wounded three others. In 2011, Shahlai funded and directed a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir. This would have been carried out in a restaurant in Georgetown. Shahlai also aimed to carry out follow-on attacks in the United States and elsewhere. Had this scheme succeeded, as many as 200 innocent civilians in the United States could have been killed.
Given Shahlai’s track record of terrorism and destabilization in Iraq, we remain gravely concerned by his presence in Yemen and potential role in providing advanced weaponry of the kind that we have interdicted to the Houthis. Iranian UAVs, missiles, and explosive boats have been used by the Houthis to threaten key civilian and economic interests and otherwise wreak havoc in the region. This designation, together with the recent interdiction in Yemen, underscores our commitment to deny Iran the means to run an expansionist foreign policy. We call on the international community to join us in holding Iran accountable for its acts of terror both against the nations of the world and against the Iranian people.
I want to close on one observation about the protests. The Iranian regime keeps losing major constituencies in its revolutionary base: first the students, then the middle class and merchants, then the working class, and even many of the clergy who criticize the regime. Now, in the latest protests, nine seminaries were burned. The only support left for the regime is with a handful of clerics whom the Iranian people despise for having imposed 40 years of brutality on them. The regime now maintains its grip on power through brute force.
QUESTION: Thanks. Brian, just briefly on the incident that you mentioned at the very top. You said you had the video. Is this – was this video that was sent to you after the Secretary made his appeal on Twitter?
MR HOOK: Yes.
QUESTION: So it was sent through that secure – that way?
MR HOOK: Right.
MR HOOK: And we’ve received – at last count, over 32,000 people have submitted --
QUESTION: Some of them the same thing, though.
MR HOOK: Well, we’re going through all of it, but that’s how many we’ve received, more than 32,000.
QUESTION: But so far this is the most egregious incident that you’ve --
MR HOOK: Yes.
QUESTION: Okay. And then on the – you said that it’s possible that the – that more than a thousand people have been killed total since the protests began.
MR HOOK: Right.
QUESTION: That’s quite a lot higher – that figure is a lot higher than what – other numbers that have been floating around. What do you base that on?
MR HOOK: Well, this is based on – some of it is – it’s a collection of crowdsourcing intelligence, intelligence reports from groups that have been publishing the death toll. As the regime has slowly restored the internet, we have more videos and more information leaking from the country. And so we know for certain it is many, many hundreds, and if you remember in the 2009 Green Revolution, which I think lasted for 10 months, you had, if memory serves, 72 people who were killed. And we are now at the many hundreds, perhaps over a thousand, and this – look, we had protests in a hundred cities, and we saw how the regime responded. The supreme leader referred to his own people as thugs, and this was a brutal crackdown. And so as more information comes in, we will continue to update you on the numbers, but that’s what we have now.
QUESTION: I just want to – you just said, “We had protests in a hundred cities.”
MR HOOK: I’m saying – I’m sorry --
QUESTION: You’re not suggesting that --
MR HOOK: I’m saying we saw we had. We saw. Yes.
QUESTION: One of the ways that you promised to help the protesters was reconnect the internet. What happened to that? Is this something that you considering again?
And second, yesterday, in a tweet, you mentioned that the Iranian regime is targeting journalists inside and outside. Inside is understood, but outside, do you have any evidence that actually they’re targeting Iranian American journalists in the United States or oppositions figures, and what are you doing to support them here if it happens?
MR HOOK: Well, the Iranian regime has a well-documented history of murdering and harassing journalists. If you look at the website the Committee to Protect Journalists, they have, on their count, the regime has killed four journalists over these many decades. We’re in regular touch with journalists, and they’re not only harassing journalists, they’re harassing their families. Those who have connections to family in Iran, they’re also harassing their families, which is a tradition of this regime, that if they want to get to people who are outside of Iran, they threaten the people that are still in Iran. And so we have been condemning the regime for its harassment of journalists, for its – they jail journalists; they murder journalists.
And so when you look at the constitution of Iran, it guarantees basic freedoms – freedom of assembly, freedom of press, freedom of speech. And the regime is not only not protecting them, they are violating them. ...
And on the internet, yes, this was an unprecedented shutdown of the internet. One of the things that I’ll point out is that Iran is in a tough spot, because whenever they’ve shut down the regime it is in – we live in an e-commerce economy, and when you shut down your internet, you’re shutting down your economy as well. And so they can only do this sort of trick for so long. It was an unprecedented shutdown of the internet, and there was enormous economic consequences for them, and they’re already struggling economically. It’s why they are having to raise the price of gas and to ration gas.
And so shortly after I came into this role, we worked to get tools into the hands of the Iranian people that would allow them to communicate with each other, in spite of regime efforts to shut that down. And we do know that tens of thousands of Iranians have used these tools that we have helped to facilitate communication. After every protest, we go through and do an inventory of lessons learned so that we can be more responsive to the Iranian people.
QUESTION: Could you give us your assessment of who really is responsible for organizing the protests in a hundred different cities? How organized is the uprising regionally? And also, what is your assessment of the exiled NCRI/MEK organization with regard to their influence over the protests or their connectivity to demonstrators in various cities?
MR HOOK: The regime, I think, since in the Green Revolution of ’09, decided that its best tactic it can use to prevent people from organizing is to sheer off the bravest of the protesters, arrest them, and kill them. And so it is – look, they even jail and murder environmentalists when they organize, like the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation and the Canadian Iranian who was arrested. The Iranians claim he committed suicide; it’s much more likely that they killed him in jail. This is somebody who is trying to promote wildlife protection. And so whether it’s the environment or whether it’s labor unrest or unrest about corruption and squandering their wealth on foreign adventures, the regime follows the same tactic of preventing any organized opposition.
But what we’ve seen with these recent protests, this is the worst political crisis the regime has faced in its 40 years. And as I – my observation at the end pointed out that in every decade this regime has been in power, it keeps losing larger segments of its society.
QUESTION: So there isn’t a monolithic organization. Is that what you’re saying? It’s an uprising that’s sort of wider and chaotic and across society?
MR HOOK: Well, I don’t have any comment on whether there’s a specific group that is doing this, but the fact that you saw protests across so many different cities – and I would also just point out none of these protests are against the United States. This is sort of a regular canard that I hear, that these sanctions are going to unify the Iranian people and it’s – and they’re going to rally around the regime. That hasn’t happened. There are no protests against the United States. All of these protests are directed at a corrupt religious mafia that has been terrorizing its own people for 40 years.
QUESTION: So the reason I bring up NCRI/MEK
MR HOOK: I don’t have any comments on specific groups.
QUESTION: Has the U.S. seen this video that’s been submitted by European members of the UN to the secretary general of a flight test of a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, and what is the U.S. assessment of that? Do you have any reaction for what the Europeans are calling for?
MR HOOK: Is this in reference to the E3 letter that went out yesterday? Yeah, the E3, I think, decided to, as best I can tell from the letter, condemn Iran’s violations. Well, I think the E3 said that they are consistent with Iran’s obligations under Resolution 2231. And so in response, Foreign Minister Zarif said that Iran is determined to resolutely continue its activities related to ballistic missiles. So we already have a response from the Iranian regime that it will continue with its ballistic missiles and its space-launch vehicles.
One of the many deficiencies of the Iran nuclear deal is that it ended the prohibition on Iran’s ballistic missile testing. That was one of the concessions that was made. It was a mistake. And we are trying to restore that, among other things, the UN standard of no enrichment. And we need to renew the UN arms embargo that expires in about 10 months and the travel ban on Qasem Soleimani and 22 other Iranians that are also going to be lifted under the Iran deal.
And so I think we have seen an expansion of Iran’s ballistic missile proliferation and missile testing during the life of the Iran nuclear deal, and we are trying to reverse those gains. We are trying to reverse many of the gains that Iran has made on its missile program and its regional aggression over the last many years.
—Dec. 5, 2019, in a press briefing
Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Chairman Risch, Ranking Member Menendez, distinguished Members of the Committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today, and thank you for devoting a hearing to discuss America’s foreign policy to Iran.
This Administration has implemented an unprecedented pressure campaign with two primary objectives: First, to deprive the Iranian regime of the money it needs to support its destabilizing activities. Second, to bring Iran to the negotiating table to conclude a comprehensive deal, as outlined by Secretary Pompeo in May 2018.
President Trump and Secretary Pompeo have expressed very clearly the United States’ willingness to negotiate with Iran, and we are willing to meet with the Iranians without preconditions. No one should be uncertain about our desire for peace or our readiness to normalize relations should we reach a comprehensive deal. We have put the possibility of a much brighter future on the table for the Iranian people, and we mean it.
The comprehensive deal we seek with the Iranian regime should address four key areas: its nuclear program, its ballistic missile development and proliferation, its support to terrorist groups and proxies, and its arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens including Bob Levinson, Siamak Namazi, Xiyue Wang, and others.
A year and a half ago, Secretary Pompeo laid out 12 points that expanded further on the kind of deal we are seeking with Iran. The requirements Secretary Pompeo laid out reflect the scope of Iran’s malign behavior. It also reflects the longstanding global consensus as enshrined in multiple Security Council resolutions since Iran’s nuclear violations were first addressed by the Council in 2006.
Before we exited the deal, re-imposed sanctions, and accelerated our pressure, Iran was increasing the scope of its malign activity. The Islamic Republic was strengthened by the resources and legitimacy provided by the nuclear deal. Under the deal, Iran was continuing to expand its missile testing and proliferation. We now have newly declassified information related to Iran’s missile program that I can share today:
- While the United States was still in the JCPOA, Iran expanded its ballistic missile activities to partners across the region, including Hizballah, Palestinian terrorist groups, and Shia militias in
- Beginning last year, Iran transferred whole missiles to a separate designated terrorist group in the
- Iran is continuing to develop missile systems and related technologies solely for export to its regional
- And while we were in the JCPOA, Iran increased its support to Hizballah, helping them produce a greater number of rockets and This arsenal is then used to target our ally, Israel.
Beyond continued advancements to its missile program, Iran was also deepening its engagement in regional conflicts.
- In Yemen, Iran helped fuel a humanitarian catastrophe by providing funding, weapons, and training to the Houthis. Its support has only prolonged the suffering of the Yemeni
- In Syria, Iran supported Assad’s brutal war machine as the Syrian regime killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions. Under the cover of the Syrian civil war, Iran is now trying to plant deep military roots in Syria and establish a forward operating base to attack Israel.
- In Lebanon, Iran uses Hizballah to provoke conflict with Lebanon’s neighbors, threaten the safety of the Lebanese people, and imperil prospects for
Furthermore, under the deal, Iran was given a clear pathway to import and export dangerous arms. Two days from now, on October 18th, we will be exactly one year away from the expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran. Because of the Iran nuclear deal, countries like Russia and China will be able to sell conventional weapons to Iran. The Iranian regime will also be free to sell weapons to anyone. This will trigger a new arms race in the Middle East.
The moment Iran is allowed to buy advanced drones, missiles, tanks, and jets, it will do so. This will be a win for its proxies across the region, who will use such arms to then attack other nations on Iran’s behalf. The United Nations Security Council needs to renew the arms embargo on Iran before it expires. We have made this a priority.
Under the Iran deal, the travel ban on 23 Iranian terrorists, including Qassem Soleimani, expires the same day as the arms embargo. Constraints on Iran will continue to unravel under the deal.
- In four years, the ban on Iran’s missile testing will
- And then, in six years, all the provisions of Resolution 2231 will Restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, enrichment and reprocessing will also expire, positioning Iran with all the weapons it needs to pursue its revolutionary, hegemonic ambitions.
Our Iran strategy is aimed at reversing these trends. Today, by nearly every measure, the regime and its proxies are weaker than when our pressure began and we are well on our way to restoring the strong international standards that had long guided the world’s policy on Iran.
Shia militant groups in Syria have stated to the New York Times that Iran no longer has enough money to pay them as much as they have in the past. Hizballah and Hamas have enacted unprecedented austerity plans due to a lack of funding from Iran. In March, Hizballah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah went on TV and said Hizballah needed public support to sustain its operations.
We are also making it harder for Iran to expand its own military capabilities. Beginning in 2014, Iran’s military budget increased every year through to 2017, when it hit nearly $14 billion. However, from 2017 to 2018, when our pressure went into effect, we saw a reduction in military spending of nearly 10 percent. Iran’s 2019 budget, which was released in March, called for even steeper cuts, including a 28 percent cut to their defense budget and a 17 percent cut for IRGC funding.
The IRGC’s cyber command is now low on cash, and the IRGC has told Iraq’s Shia militia groups that they should start looking for new sources of revenue. Now, because of our sanctions, Iran will be unable to even fully fund this skinny budget for 2019.
Iran’s economy contracted by about 5 percent last year and this year will shrink by more than 10 percent. We estimate it could contract by as much as 14 percent, sending Iran into a deep depression. Iran is now tapping unconventional sources—like privatizing state assets and drawing on its sovereign wealth fund—to make up for the shortfall. Iran is being forced to choose between printing more money or delaying spending on infrastructure development, salaries, and benefits.
Iran has a choice: it can act like a country, or it can act like a cause. Iran must change its behavior and act like a normal nation or it will watch its economy crumble.
Our policy is at its core an economic and diplomatic one. We are relying on economic pressure and the might of American diplomacy to raise the costs on Iran and force meaningful behavior change. Iran, however, has responded to this policy with violence.
In recent months, Iran has launched a series of attacks in a panicked bid to intimidate the world into halting our pressure. Iran was responsible for the attacks at the Port of Fujairah, the assault on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman, and the attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq.
Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed, and extortion. Our diplomacy does not entitle Iran to undertake violence against any nation or to threaten maritime security.
This Administration does not seek armed conflict with Iran. We have been equally clear to the regime that we will defend our citizens, forces, and interests, including against attacks by Iran or its proxies.
We stand with our partners and allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability, and have taken appropriate steps to enhance the regional defense architecture. Our aim is to deter conflict and support our partners.
The Islamic Republic is also engaging in its longstanding practice of nuclear extortion. Iran’s message to the international community is clear: if you do not allow us to conduct our normal level of terror, then we will behave even more badly until you do. It has long used its nuclear program in this way and for this reason. The world ought to recognize this extortion when it sees it.
Iran’s recent accelerations of its uranium enrichment reminds us of the deficiencies of the Iran nuclear deal. Iran’s nuclear threats are made possible by a plan that left Iran’s nuclear capabilities largely intact and that seems to have encouraged Iran to dream of the day when key limits on its nuclear program would evaporate, allowing it to prepare for rapid breakout.
I should also emphasize, Mr. Chairman, that the problems presented by Iran’s provocative threats to begin building up its stocks of nuclear material – and the actions it is already taking to expand its uranium enrichment centrifuge research and development, and to produce more heavy water – are problems that the world would have faced anyway, in a few years’ time, under the terms of the JCPOA itself.
Had we stuck to the JCPOA until those dangerous Iranian provocations were actually permitted by the JCPOA, we would be less prepared to meet the threats Iran presents. In that intervening period, Iran would have continued on the trajectory it was on until the United States’ re- imposition of sanctions pressures: amassing revenue from abroad because the deal encouraged business with Iran, while funneling maximum effort and money into missile development, missile proliferation, support for terrorism, and regional destabilization. The Iran we would have faced then would be much more formidable than the Iran we face today.
We must learn from past mistakes and demand comprehensive and permanent restrictions on Iran’s activities in any new deal.
We can look to a recent tragedy to show nations can pressure Iran to change. When Sahar Khodayari, an Iranian woman, died from self- immolation after she was sentenced to prison simply for attending a soccer match in Tehran. Together with international outrage and condemnation, FIFA challenged the regime’s policy of prohibiting women from attending matches. As a result of international pressure, Iran agreed to permit women to a match last week, even though the authorities kept the women segregated in a separate section.
When the world comes together to push back against Iran, we see change in its behavior. This administration will do its part, and we are succeeding in having others join us. Late last month, France Germany, and the United Kingdom called for Iran to accept negotiations on its nuclear program, ballistic missiles, and regional activity. The E3 now agree with us that a new deal is needed. Secretary Pompeo and I have made clear to our allies and partners that we will continue to stand with them against Iran’s violence.
Looking forward, our pressure will continue to deny Iran access to the revenue streams it needs to destabilize the Middle East. As we raise the costs of Iran’s expansionism and foreclose the possibility of prolonging the status quo, Iran will continue to find its violence will only earn it isolation and censure.
We seek a comprehensive deal that sets our two peoples on a new trajectory toward a far more peaceful and stable relationship. We remember that the longest suffering victims of the Iranian regime are the Iranian people. The last 40 years of Iran’s history are a sad tale of corruption and the oppression of a once-vibrant people. The United States stands with the Iranian people in their deep desire that the next 40 years of Iran’s history will not be stained by repression and fear of the clerics’ cruelty. We wish nothing more for the Iranian people a future with by a truly representative government and friendship with the American people.
Chairman Risch, Ranking Member Menendez, and other Members of the Committee, I thank you again for the opportunity to testify before you. I welcome the opportunity to answer your questions.
—Oct. 16, 2019, in a testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Remarks on U.S. Troop Deployment
MR HOOK: Today, the Defense Department announced the deployment of additional U.S. forces to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Secretary Pompeo and Secretary Esper have had many talks with the Saudis, and those discussions intensified after the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia on September 14th. Secretary Pompeo traveled to the region only days after the attack to discuss Saudi’s defensive capabilities and the means by which we can re-establish deterrence in the region.
The Secretary has been in regular communication with other partners in the Middle East on the best way forward. The product of these bilateral talks is the announcement today that an additional 3,000 forces will flow to Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is a longstanding security partner and has requested additional support to supplement their defenses and to defend the rules-based international order. We know this decision is supported by many partners in the region who are on the frontlines of Iranian aggression. Since May, the Department of Defense has increased the number of forces by approximately 14,000 to the CENTCOM Area of Responsibility as an investment in regional security.
This administration does not seek conflict with Iran. We have been equally clear to the regime that we will defend our citizens, forces, and interests, including against attacks by Iran or its proxies. We stand with our partners and our allies to safeguard global commerce and regional stability.
I would like to give some diplomatic context to the decision today to increase troops. The United States is raising the costs of Iran’s revolutionary adventures while increasing incentives for pragmatism to prevail. The international community needs to be a part of this effort. Nations around the world need to hold Iran accountable, press Iran to de-escalate, and join us in our commitment to providing stability in the region.
Willful blindness in the face of threats does not advance peace; it hinders it. And as we have again demonstrated today, we are doing our part.
I will remind everyone that this administration has implemented its pressure campaign with two primary objectives: first, to deprive the Iranian regime of the money that it needs to destabilize the Middle East and to terrorize other regions of the world; second, to bring Iran to the negotiating table to conclude a comprehensive and enduring deal, as outlined by Secretary Pompeo in May of 2018.
The pressure on Iran continues to mount. Iran’s economy contracted by roughly five percent last year and probably will shrink by more than 10 percent this year. We estimate that Iran’s economy could contract by as much as 14 percent, sending Iran into a deep depression. The regime is now tapping unconventional sources, like privatizing state assets and drawing on its sovereign wealth fund, to make up for the massive shortfall. Increasingly, Iran will be forced to choose between printing money or delaying spending on infrastructure, development, salaries, and benefits.
The regime in Iran has a choice: It can act like a country or it can act like a cause. Iran must change its behavior and act like a normal nation, or it will watch its economy crumble. While the Iranian leaders make that decision, we will stay focused on working with our partners to defend themselves from attacks while also raising the costs of aggression.
As we raise the costs of Iran’s expansionism and foreclose the possibility of prolonging the status quo, Iran will continue to find its violence will only earn it isolation and censure. Our policy is, at its core, a diplomatic and economic one. Iran has responded to it with violence. Iran should meet diplomacy with diplomacy, not with terror, bloodshed, and nuclear extortion. Our diplomacy does not entitle Iran to undertake violence against any nation or to threaten maritime security.
We seek a comprehensive deal that sets our two peoples on a new trajectory toward a far more peaceful and stable relationship. We are very pleased that the United Kingdom and France and Germany have also called for a new deal to comprehensively address the threats that Iran presents to peace and security. We are defending our interests and assets in the region, and we are working to establish deterrence.
QUESTION: Can you try to clear up two – I have two issues of confusion. One is I was under the impression that this President, this administration, wanted to remove or reduce U.S. troop presence in the Middle East. How does that – is the – there’s the threat – do you see the threat from Iran to be such that this is absolutely necessary to regain the deterrent factor?
And then secondly, you keep talking about our diplomacy and how it does not give Iran the excuse of – can you can what that diplomacy is, actually? I mean, it’s certainly not with Iran, right? There’s no contact with Iran. So is this diplomacy that you’re doing with the Europeans or with the Saudis and with the Emiratis? What is the diplomacy to which you keep talking about?
MR HOOK: Well, on the first, I’d probably change how you described it. The President has said he is getting us out of endless wars, which is very different than what you talked about, endless wars where you have troops engaged in endless wars.
The troops that we are sending into Saudi and the enhanced assets are defensive. They are there to defend our interests and to help Saudi defend itself. We are not looking for conflict in the Middle East. We have had plenty of it.
So Iran is the aggressor, and we had put in place an enhanced force posture since May, when our Intelligence Community detected multiple threats against American interests in the region and to our partners. Our enhanced force posture has helped to disrupt and deter many of the attacks that Iran was plotting. So that is the kind of – at the heart of what we’re doing is defensive, and I think it’s a distinction that I think is lost in your question.
On the second one, our diplomacy, however you want to define our diplomacy, and I’m happy to describe it, it is very different than Iran and how they’re dealing with it. We would like to resolve our differences diplomatically. And the President, from even while we were in the deal and after the deal, has said that he would meet with the Iranians. The Iranians reject the diplomacy. The Secretary has said that he would meet with the Iranians, and they have rejected it. They have rejected the diplomacy of Prime Minister Abe, of President Macron, and many leaders around the world.
So we want to resolve our differences diplomatically. We don’t want to have any element of violence or kinetic force as part of that equation. Our diplomacy to accomplish our objectives in the meantime is based on economic pressure and diplomatic isolation – two factors that are required if you want to see a change in Iran’s behavior. There is no other example in the last 40 years of Iran moderating or changing its behavior without economic pressure and diplomatic isolation.
QUESTION: Did you see this report from Iran, Iranian oil tanker hit off Saudi? Does U.S. have any independent confirmation of that? And if any of this enhanced assets and troops will be used towards the securing of Straits of Hormuz?
MR HOOK: Well, on the first part, we’ve seen the reports about the tanker off the coast of Saudi, and I don’t have any comment on it. What was your second question?
QUESTION: Whether any of these additional troops and enhanced assets will be used towards better security of Straits of Hormuz, the shipping line.
MR HOOK: Well, that’s what our Sentinel – our maritime security initiative is largely focused around that. And so I think these additional troops and assets into Saudi are meant to enhance Saudi’s ability to defend itself. Saudi has been very much focused on all the threats coming from the south because of the Iranian-backed Houthi attacks on Saudi. Now that you have attacks coming from the north, it puts Saudi at increased risk, and so we have put in place assets which are very much designed around restoring deterrence broadly but also specifically helping Saudi better defend itself.
Sentinel – that’s one of many names for it – the maritime security initiative that we have in the Strait of Hormuz – is designed to increase – we’ve had a number of countries join. We have asked nations to contribute maritime and aviation assets so that we have more eyes on that area. The more people that we have there, it makes it harder for Iran to execute its operations against tankers and other things like they’ve done in the past, if they ever wanted to threaten to mine the Strait of Hormuz, which they’ve done in the past, take out oil tankers, capture oil tankers in other countries’ waters. So we encourage countries to join this maritime security initiative. It is to raise awareness about threats in that area so that we can deter them.
QUESTION: I know you just said that this decision to send thousands of troops to Saudi Arabia has been in the making for a while, but do you detect any imminent threat from Iran now, that it was part in this decision to send them now? And also, do you see that this maximum pressure campaign will bring Iran in any way closer to the negotiation table?
MR HOOK: It is very hard to predict when Iran will meet our diplomacy with diplomacy. That’s really a question for the Iranians. We have provided diplomatic off-ramps for over two years, while we were in the deal and when we were outside of the deal. Iran continues to reject diplomacy.
You have seen so many countries who have offered to be an intermediary to help de-escalate tensions. Prime Minister Abe made the first visit in history of a Japanese prime minister to the Islamic Republic of Iran; and while he was in the country, they bombed a Japanese oil tanker, and the supreme leader issued a series of tweets rejecting the diplomacy.
So I can’t help Iran help itself. We are raising the costs of being an outlaw regime, and we think that certainly you saw the E3 leaders’ statement after the – shortly after the attacks in Abqaiq. The Iran nuclear deal has come at the expense of missile nonproliferation in the Middle East, and we saw that in Abqaiq. Iran has the largest missile inventory in the Middle East, and I have been saying for well over a year that inaction to deter Iran’s missile program, we are accumulating risk of a regional war. I’ve been saying that for over a year, here and in other fora.
And then on September 14th we had an act of war, and we continue to accumulate risk of a worse conflict if we don’t get serious about Iran’s missile program. The Iran nuclear deal is not only silent on ICBMs, it lifted the UN Security Council provision banning ballistic missile testing, and Iran interpreted the Iran nuclear deal as giving it a green light on both missile testing and to deepen its engagement with its proxies, which the sanctions relief helped to fuel.
So there are a lot of reasons, we think, for the European Union to match our sanctions on Iran’s missile and drone program.
QUESTION: In regards to the Secretary’s early-morning tweet in – asking Iran to – or urging Iran to ratify Palermo convention, if you could kindly elaborate on it, on the timing. Why the urgency now? I mean, Iran’s been evading FATF.
And also, State Department’s take on Iran’s heeding to the FIFA pressure and allowing women to enter their stadiums, if you can also --
MR HOOK: Well, FATF had to put in place countermeasures a few months ago because Iran does not run a banking system with transparency. It is by design opaque, and one of the reasons why you haven’t seen any activity in this INSTEX or special purpose vehicle is because Iran has not created a mirror image of the European mechanism, which does have full transparency.
And so for as long as Iran continues to run an opaque financial sector so that it can disguise its money laundering and its terror finance, you are going to continue to see banks and businesses averse to engaging with Iran. Because when you conduct business in Iran, where the IRGC controls to half or more of the economy, you can never know if you’re supporting commerce or terrorism. You cannot know that. The IRGC is very expert at creating front companies disguised as any number of organizations, including humanitarian organizations, and this quite naturally has made banks fearful. The first rule of banking is know your customer, and it’s very hard to do that when you’re dealing with the Iranian regime.
On the stadium, the Iranians have been denying women from attending sports events and stadiums, including soccer, for a very long time. And then you had the Blue Girl, who, after she was arrested and sentenced to prison for six months, she lit herself on fire and died of her injuries. FIFA stood up for her and put pressure on the regime, and this is another example – maybe going to Matt’s earlier question – where pressure works. It works with this regime. But if we engage in willful blindness or operate in a culture of inaction, Iran interprets that as a green light to continue doing more of the same, and to raise it.
So FIFA stood up to the regime and drove up the costs of them continuing to deny women from attending soccer games. Now, what does the regime do? They then have – they had this match recently. The stadium was mostly empty. The area for the women was in a caged-off section, and so the women were kept in a caged area apart from the men to watch this game. Those are the women who could buy tickets, who could get tickets. The women who couldn’t get tickets were outside the stadium, and they were harassed and beaten by the Iranian regime.
So a big pillar of what we do is standing with the Iranian people. When you look at the energy, sort of the protest movement in Iran, it’s with the women around the compulsory hijab and also around the soccer. And the Iranian regime is very ideological, but they also have a pragmatic side, which occasionally they will put on display when they think that they’re – that they’re at risk. We saw that with FIFA. We believe that our approach is also going to help us accomplish our objectives.
QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on Matt’s question, and which you addressed with the response about endless wars. I think the confusion is in part more the President tweeted not only about endless wars but he said that going into the Middle East was the biggest mistake the United States had ever made in the history of the country, and the U.S. was now in the process of withdrawing its troops not only from Syria but from the broader Middle East. So, I mean, how do you – how do you explain those two conflicting messages? The President himself says that that’s the biggest mistake in the history of the United States, and you’re now telling us 3,000 more troops are going in and 14,000 have been brought in. It just seems like a fundamental contradiction.
MR HOOK: I don’t think it’s a contradiction. We have the 5th Fleet in Bahrain. We have our base in Doha. We have troops now at Prince Sultan Air Base. We’ve had troops in Syria that have been there to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS. I can keep going around the region. Obviously, the United States has interests which the President is dedicated to protecting, and we do that through a very, very smart combination of diplomacy and hard power, and that has been the mix that the President has put in place. Our troop levels go up and down depending on the threat. And given the Iranian aggression and given our partners in the region, the President asked the Secretary, Secretary Pompeo, to go to Saudi right after the attack so that we could have this discussion about their defensive needs. He’s also said repeatedly that if our troops are attacked in the Middle East, no matter where they are, we will not make a distinction between Iran and its proxies that they organize, train, and equip.
So I think the President has a very good record in the Middle East to combine our diplomatic objectives, and that’s why Secretary Pompeo, Secretary Esper work so well together across the various threats and opportunities we face in the Middle East.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that it was the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia that was used as a pretext by al-Qaida terrorists some 20 years ago, that this may give them added incentive and so on to strike again?
And second, on the 12 points, we’re a bit confused, or at least I am a bit confused. Are these preconditions?
MR HOOK: So that really is a question for Saudi Arabia, but Saudi Arabia has requested additional troops and additional assets to help them defend themselves. And so that’s really a question that is appropriate for Saudi Arabia, but we can say that Saudi Arabia has made this request both to Secretary Pompeo and to Secretary Esper.
QUESTION: Real quick to that point a little bit. The Saudis buy a lot of weapons from the U.S. In fact, the State Department went through great lengths this year to make sure that they could do that even when there was some opposition in Congress. So you said they’ve requested U.S. troops. Why do the Saudis need the U.S. to do this? Why can’t they defend themselves?
MR HOOK: Well, we have a number of partnerships around the world. This isn’t limited to Saudi Arabia. I mean, we have security cooperation around the world. So I think the premise of your question is if there are American troops in a country, then they can’t defend themselves.
QUESTION: No, I’m just saying they have a military and they buy a lot of weapons from us and they’re saying, well, we would like your help, and I understand that, but is there a reason the U.S. thinks that they need to go in? Is it that the Saudis can’t do this themselves or we’re just helping?
MR HOOK: I would put it this way: The Saudis, in light of the Iranian effort to attack Saudi from the south and to attack Saudi from the north, has created a new security crisis for Saudi Arabia that requires additional assets, which are defensive – and they’re entirely defensive. We would very much like to see Iran stop attacking countries in the region. That would be the easiest way for us to reduce our troop levels in the region, but this is very much focused around defensive, and it will continue to be defensive. We are not looking for a fight.
QUESTION: You’re making a distinction between troops that are at risk that are regularly taking casualties, which is I think what the President is saying when he says he wants to end the endless wars, and troops who are there to prevent conflict, to be a tripwire, to support local forces. It strikes me that you’ve just made the State Department’s best argument so far against the President doing what he did on Sunday, which was to remove troops that were there as a tripwire and to provide additional security with a partner.
So I’m having a hard time getting at the distinction between what the troops in Saudi Arabia that you’ve announced today are supposed to accomplish --
MS ORTAGUS: So, David, I get it. We really have to go because the President might not (inaudible).
QUESTION: The President might but --
MS ORTAGUS: And he’s not here to answer Syria. So --
QUESTION: Well – but he’s here to answer a contradiction in his statement.
QUESTION: We’re fine. Is the investigation into the attack on the Aramco facility, is that finished and is there going to be more satellite or more intel released on that to share?
MR HOOK: The United States, the UN, Saudi, some other countries have all contributed efforts to the site exploitation. There is still ongoing analysis of the debris from the attack. It is no question that Iran is behind the attacks. We’re continuing to exploit what was at the site.
—Oct. 11, 2019, in a press briefing
Interview with CNN
AMANPOUR: I think I'm probably not wrong in saying that the Iran, U.S., Saudi basic the Iran issue is going to be front and center at the U.N. General Assembly or in meetings between world leaders this week. What do you expect to come out of these meetings? What is the U.S. end game for this week, at least?
HOOK: We think it's important that the international community defend international norms like protecting sovereignty and freedom of navigation. We think that the world needs to diplomatically isolate Iran for violating Saudi sovereignty, for repeated attacks on freedom of navigation. There's an important role for the U.N. Security Council to play. There's an important role for the European Union. I met this morning with European Union diplomats and called on the E.U. to match our sanctions on Iran's missile program so that we can help restore deterrents in the Middle East.
AMANPOUR: Are you also trying to take this moment to say to the Europeans, well, there you are. We told you so. Our policy of maximum pressure is the correct one. You don't like it. You blame us for this escalation by pulling out of the JCPOA, the nuclear deal. Are you saying now you've got to come on to our side not just on missiles but on sanctions, as well?
HOOK: Well, you ask a very good question. One year ago, I was here in New York for the General Assembly. I met with European diplomats and I said that we are accumulating risk of a regional war if we don't get serious about deterring Iranian aggression, and I think the facts have born that out. We have put in place a policy of economic pressure and diplomatic isolation because we have to deny revenue to the world's leading sponsor of terrorism.
There's -- this is a clear violation of so many of the international norms that countries around the world claim to defend. Iran crossed the line in its attack on Saudi Arabia. There have been over 40 attacks since May alone on threatening freedom of navigation, terrorism, failed attempts, maligned behavior. It's important that the world hold Iran accountable.
AMANPOUR: OK. So, let's now talk about possible reaction or retaliation or defense of your allies in the Middle East. So, as you know, foreign Minister Javad Zarif has given a number of interviews in which he has said any attack on Iran would be leading to all-out war. He also said to me and you've seen the interview that the United States might start a war but it would not end a war. Give me your response to those statements from foreign Minister Zarif.
HOOK: I think Iran has a demonstrated 40-year history of creating conflicts and then pretending to be the peacemaker. And that's happening here again. As I said earlier, there have been over 40 attacks reported by the media since May. We're aware of another 40, including failed attempts. So, Iran has been in a steady state of escalating tensions through military aggression. The United States has asked Iran to meet diplomacy with diplomacy. They have met diplomacy with military force.
And Iran has rejected diplomacy too many times. We have made it clear over the last two and a half years that we want to resolve our issues with Iran diplomatically. The Iranian regime has consistently said that they're not interested in that. And so, they continue to conduct attacks around the Middle East and in Europe. And it is important that we not let Iran get away with it again.
We do believe that they have crossed a line with the Saudi attacks and we need to defend the international principles of sovereignty and freedom of navigation and a range of other challenges so that we can promote peace and stability in the Middle East.
AMANPOUR: But I want you to address what I've been told by officials in the region, specifically, that they are telling the United States very clearly that they don't want the U.S. to start another war in the Middle East, both Saudi officials, and they're on record, and also UAE officials who are right there where they could receive response retaliation from Iran. Are you saying that your allies in the region want you to defend them militarily or that there's another way?
HOOK: I think the United States has had plenty of conflict in the Middle East. We are not looking for conflict or any military dimensions. In early May, our intelligence community was receiving multiple threat streams that Iran was plotting imminent attacks against American interests in multiple theaters. We enhanced our forced posture in the region and we have helped to deter and disrupt many of the attacks that we have feared were going to be happening in May. So, we have put in place a much stronger presence in the region to defend ourselves if Iran decides to make good on its threats to attack America or its interests. I would take you back to the president's first trip as president overseas to Saudi Arabia where there were over 55 Arab and Muslim nations that gathered there. And the president said that it is important that we improve the competencies and capabilities of our regional partners to be a counterweight to Iran.
Iran has been running an expansion as foreign policy for many decades. And over the last 10 years, they've made it a lot of gains to create this Iranian crescent of power. And so, we are working very closely with the Saudis, the Emiratis, Bahrain, a number of Israel, a number of countries who are on the front lines of Iranian aggression so that we can make them stronger and try to help restore deterrence in the Middle East.
AMANPOUR: Many people have pointed out that they were surprised that given the threat that you talk about and America's promises that you talk about, the Saudis were clearly, evidently, left without the kind of air defenses that they needed to deter that kind of attack that they received on their oil facilities. So, they're also concerned that President Trump did not cross that red line that he himself talked about in June during the tanker frigate attacks where he said he called back a military intervention at the last minute. So, there seems to be some mixed messages all around. And so, I want to ask you about diplomacy because a former commander in the region has said that there is a way back to peace and security and that is by reentering the deal that's currently on the table and that is the Iran nuclear agreement.
You heard the foreign minister of Iran tell me that they want a diplomatic resolution and that they are prepared to offer more in terms of the Iran nuclear deal, as you saw in training (ph) the fatwa of the supreme leader, bringing the intrusive inspections of the additional protocol up by several years. And they've even talked about potentially, possibly some kind of meeting between the president and President Rouhani. Are any of those, you know, a goer as far as the United States is concerned right now?
HOOK: Well, the president said -- he has been saying this for some time now that he is more than happy to meet with President Rouhani because we would like to resolve our differences diplomatically. The Iranians have consistently rejected that offer. It's not just to the United States, keep in mind. Prime Minister Abe was the first Japanese prime minister to fly to Iran in this Islamic Republic. And while he was there, Ayatollah Khomeini rejected his diplomacy and then bombed a Japanese oil tanker while he was still in Iran. They've also rejected the French. And so, this is becoming a very troubling pattern of behavior for the regime but it's consistent with how they've behaved over many decades.
We do know that Iran never changes or moderates its behavior unless you have economic pressure, diplomatic isolation, or the threat of military force. That is something which if anybody who studies the last 40 years of Iranian behavior, you need one or more of those three things. We have kept our diplomacy squarely within sort of the diplomatic track, the economic pressure piece, but Iran is going outside of it. So we would very much welcome an entirely different approach that Iran has been showing for sometime now.
Foreign Minister Zarif does a very good job of misrepresenting the true nature of the Iranian regime. They are very committed to their campaign of exporting violence and exporting revolution, undermining the sovereignty of other countries. So we continue to leave a door open for diplomacy, and in the meantime our campaign of economic pressure will continue.
AMANPOUR: Brian Hook, finally there is a big story in The New York Times saying that to try to retaliate in some meaningful way, the United States is upping its cyber warfare against Iran and it has plans to attack via cyber. First of all, can you confirm that and are you worried that that will launch a counterattack through cyber?
HOOK: Iran's security concerns are entirely self-generated. They have a very well-known cyber capability. David Sanger has written about this from The New York Times, and they use it offensively. It certainly isn't intended for its defensive capabilities. We very much have condemned the kind of cyber attacks that Iran has waged over many years. We don't preview any of our decision making or discuss our deliberative process on this. We are committed to reversing Iran's power projection and to get them back to their own borders and to start behaving more like a normal nation and less like a revolutionary cause. And it's going to be important that we get number of countries to join us.
—Sept. 23, 2019, in an interview with CNN
Remarks after Iran Downed a U.S. Drone
“This is a president who is very willing to sit down with the regime. I think the question people should be asking is ... why Iran continues to reject diplomacy.”
“They are in a recession now, it is going to get significantly worse.”
—June 23, 2019, in a telephone interview from Oman according to Reuters
Op-ed in “The New York Times”: “Iran Should Reconcile with America”
The peoples of the United States and Iran should have diplomatic ties. We can foresee a new American Embassy in Tehran issuing visas to tourists, business travelers, and teachers. There should also be direct flights from Tehran to New York or Los Angeles. Before the revolution, America was Iran’s second-largest trading partner. It should be again. Before the revolution, 50,000 Iranian students were studying in American universities. Renewed relations would open the door to tremendous opportunities.
America stands ready to engage an Iranian government with mutual respect, in pursuit of mutual interests. But in order to make this opening possible — in order to normalize ties and enjoy all the benefits that would follow — the regime must first decide that it wants to be a normal country and not a revolutionary cause.
—April 8, 2019
Press Briefing Following the Announcement of the Designation of the Revolutionary Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization
QUESTION: This has been obviously under consideration for a while. Previous administrations have considered it as well but opted not to do it, and one of the reasons has been for not doing it to date that it creates complications – particularly in Iraq but also in Lebanon and elsewhere for American soldiers but also American diplomats and how they – so are there any exclusions, waivers, carve-outs, however you want to call this, that would allow the kind of contacts, particularly in Iraq, that American commanders or regular troops might have with people – Iraqi officials who, by virtue of their station, have to interact with IRGC personnel.
MR HOOK: The IRGC has been threatening American troops almost since its inception. And whenever we impose sanctions on Iran, it’s usually followed by a range of threats. What endangers American troops in the Middle East is an IRGC that operates with impunity and never has its ambitions checked in the Middle East. We’re taking an entirely new approach to this of significant sort of sustained maximum economic pressure to deny the IRGC and the Iranian regime of the revenue that it needs to conduct its foreign policy.
And we know that the IRGC has been a principle architect, an enforcer of Iran’s foreign policy since around 1979, the way the ayatollah designed the regime. And they are trying to reshape the Middle East in their favor, working as a power broker and as a military force. And they assassinate rivals, not only in the Middle East but in Europe. They organize, train, and equip these militias all over the Middle East. As we saw in Syria, they direct a network of militant groups, and in the case of Iraq, they’ve killed over 600 American servicemen. And so we think it’s important to – in this case today, we’re adding a layer of additional sanctions on the IRGC to make radioactive those sectors of Iran’s economy that are influenced or controlled by the IRGC.
QUESTION: So over the weekend, an IRGC commander warned that if the U.S. take – took this action, U.S. forces in Western Asia will lose peace and quiet. And it’s obviously something we’ve been talking about, U.S. forces operating very close to the IRGC members in Iraq. So is there more being done to provide safety measures to members of the U.S. military that are in close proximity, or are you confident that they are defended enough against the IRGC at this point?
MR HOOK: The decision leading up to this process was a full interagency process that included every member of the National Security Council. We have taken all measures that are appropriate and prudent in the context of this designation.
With respect to Iranian threats, when you play under house rules, the house always wins. And Iran has a very long history of trying to get the world to play by its rules, and every time the world calls out this regime for being a mafia racket – the IRGC, as the Secretary said, resembles more a racket than a revolutionary cause. And so whenever we and other nations call out and expose the regime for what it is, it behaves like a mafia organization, increasing its threats, and we will not be deterred by their threats.
QUESTION: Earlier on a conference call this morning, a U.S. administration official said that the IRGC’s dual mission is to suppress people at home and the other terrorize abroad. Now, is this designation today in any way geared towards the first part of the mission here, suppress people at home? Do you expect this designation to in any way affect how the IRGC treats the people within the country?
MR HOOK: Yes, we do. Yes, we do. The IRGC is responsible for much of the repression at home. When you saw the protests in 2009, the detentions, the arrests, the harassment, and then the murders, that is very much an IRGC operation. And so they have been a principle driver of repressing the Iranian people who want a better way of life at home. So when we deny this organization revenue and we put a black cloud above it, it makes it harder for the IRGC to conduct its mission. And they also do this overseas, principally through the Quds Force. And so today’s designation is IRGC and Quds Force, and they are the – of course, IRGC and QF rotate personnel domestically and internationally as Soleimani sees fit. As Qasem Soleimani said in March 2009, “The battlefield is mankind’s lost paradise.”
And this is the true nature of Iran’s foreign policy. It is not the very nice-seeming tweets of Iran’s foreign minister. If you want to know Iran’s foreign policy, pay more attention to what Qasem Soleimani has said and continues to say. He was recently given a medal by the supreme leader, who wished for his martyrdom, and the supreme leader has said things – he’s been lionizing people who drink “the sweet syrup of martrydom.” This regime is in many ways a death cult, and their foreign policy resembles that with all of this talk about martyrdom. And it’s a very dangerous, dark, and brutal regime, both for the Iranian people and for those nations who are on the front line of trying to respond to Iranian aggression.
And we know that Saudi Arabia, with the missile launches from Yemen into Saudi; Bahrain, which has – since ’81 the Iranian regime has tried to destabilize and overthrow the government there in Bahrain; Lebanon, Syria, the Hizballah tunnels – the list goes on and on. It is very hard to imagine a peaceful Middle East with a strong Iranian regime.
—April 8, 2018, at a press briefing
April 2019 Update on Iran Strategy
Today we are providing an update on the President’s Iran strategy. I will highlight the effects we are seeing on the Iranian regime and its allies and proxies in the Middle East. This briefing comes at a time when Iran is facing severe flooding. At least 45 people have died in the past two weeks after heavy rains, with flooding affecting at least 23 of Iran’s 31 provinces. The Secretary issued a statement earlier today extending his condolences and offering assistance, and I extend my condolences as well.
Since taking office, the administration has designated over 970 Iranian entities and individuals. The sanctions announced last week against front companies supporting the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s ministry of defense were the 26th round of American sanctions. Our sanctions have targeted a range of threats, especially Iran’s support of terrorism, missile proliferation, its nuclear program, human rights abuses, and others
As part of this pressure, we have sanctioned more than 70 Iran-linked financial institutions and their foreign and domestic subsidiaries. The SWIFT financial messaging system matched many of these designations and disconnected every sanctioned bank in Iran. In November, SWIFT even disconnected the Central Bank of Iran from its system. We have targeted Iran’s illicit oil shipping networks, which enrich the brutal Assad regime and terrorist partners like Hizballah. We are taking unprecedented steps to deepen our cooperation with allies and partners to confront Iranian-backed terrorism and aggression. Joint teams from the departments of State and Treasury have now visited more than 50 countries around the world to brief on our new policy and warn of the dangers and reputational risks of doing business with Iran. Almost one year after the United States ended its participation in the Iran nuclear deal, and five months after the full reimposition of our sanctions, it is clear that our actions are restricting Iran’s cash flow. They are constraining its ability to operate freely in the region.
Our oil sanctions have taken approximately 1.5 million barrels of Iranian oil exports off the market since May of 2018. This has denied the regime access to well over $10 billion in revenue. That is a loss of at least $30 million a day, and this is only with respect to the oil. Iran would otherwise use this money to support its destructive and destabilizing activities. Because of our efforts, the regime now has less money to spend on its support of terrorism, missile proliferation, and on its long list of proxies. In November, we granted eight waivers, oil waivers to avoid a spike in the price of oil. I can confirm today that three of those importers are now at zero. That brings us to a total of 23 importers that once were purchasers of Iranian crude that are now at zero. With oil prices actually lower than they were when we announced our sanctions, and global oil – and global production stable, we are on the fast track to zeroing out all purchases of Iranian crude.
More than 100 major corporations withdrew from business in Iran. Companies like Total and Siemens have exited the Iranian market, taking with them billions of dollars in investment. Since the IRGC controls up to half of Iran’s economy, this lack of investment means less money for the Quds Force and Iran’s network of proxies. Our sanctions are draining Iran’s support to its proxies, and for the first time in a very long time, they have less access to revenue to spread terror and militancy. In March, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese Hizballah, publicly appealed for donations for the first time ever. He has been forced to undertake unprecedented austerity measures. There are reports that some Hizballah fighters are receiving half of their pay, and that others are only being paid $200 a month. Other Hizballah employees report receiving 60 percent of their normal monthly salaries.
A new analysis released last month by the Washington Institute corroborates these findings. Hizballah has closed almost a thousand offices and paused hiring of new personnel. The report further concludes that Hizballah itself attributes this belt-tightening to U.S. sanctions on Iran, which has historically provided the group with $700 million annually. That is 70 percent of Hizballah’s entire budget.
Hizballah is not alone in feeling the strain of American sanctions. Iranian proxies in Syria and elsewhere are experiencing a lack of funding from Tehran. Fighters are going unpaid, and the services they once relied upon are drying up. Last week The New York Times quoted a Shia fighter in Syria who said that, quote, “The golden days are gone and will never return. Iran doesn’t have enough money to give us.”
We are working with our allies and partners to make this the new norm. We have acted with them to disrupt Iran’s illicit oil shipping operations. When we identified ships smuggling illicit Iranian oil for the Quds Force to support Hizballah and the Assad regime, Secretary Pompeo dispatched diplomatic teams to work with our allies and partners to help prevent it. We have been working with countries on almost every continent to identify vessels of concern and disrupt their operations. More than 75 vessels involved in illicit activity have been denied the flags that they need to sail.
Panama issued a presidential decree to pull registration and de-flag Iranian vessels. Countries like Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone have exercised great diligence to disrupt these schemes and deny criminal Iranian entities access to flag registries, insurance, and classification. We thank each of these nations for their work.
America has not acted alone to counter Iran’s malign behavior. Our European partners pushed back against Iran after a foiled bomb plot in Paris, and thwarted an assassination attempt in Denmark. In January, the European Union sanctioned Iran’s ministry of intelligence and security and two of its agents for their roles in these activities. The EU’s recent Foreign Affairs Council passed conclusions in February that called out its ballistic – Iran’s ballistic missile program. It also opposed Iran’s malign activity in Europe, as well as its ongoing role in regional conflicts. Many European countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Albania, and Serbia have acted to address the threat of Iranian terrorism on their own soil, whether by recalling ambassadors, expelling Iranian diplomats, eliminating visa-free travel, or denying landing rights to Mahan Air, as Germany recently did. All of these activities were undertaken after the U.S. exited the Iran nuclear deal, undercutting the narrative that the U.S. is alone in countering Iran’s threats to international peace and security.
We are also working with our allies and partners to oppose Iran’s ballistic missile program. The United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have repeatedly highlighted Iran’s defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. We relayed our strong concerns to the UN secretary-general following Iran’s launch of a medium range ballistic missile in December, and its attempted satellite launches in January and February.
Just last week, the UK, France, and Germany wrote to the secretary-general again, underscoring their concerns with Iran’s recent missile launches. We are confident that our shared assessment of the threat from Iran will continue to translate into even more shared action.
Our sanctions are laying bare this regime’s mismanagement and lack of transparency. Shortly after the President exited the Iran nuclear deal, Foreign Minister Zarif bragged that Iran would, quote, “thrive” under U.S. sanctions. His optimism was misplaced. A few months later, the supreme leader said that the regime is under, quote, “unprecedented pressure,” end quote. President Rouhani has since said Iran faces its, quote, “most severe economic crisis in 40 years.”
This economic crisis is largely of the regime’s own making, because it has prioritized expanding the revolution abroad over sound economics at home. Living conditions have barely rebounded to pre-revolution levels. For most Iranians, the promises of the revolution never materialized. This is why the hashtag #40yearsoffailure was a popular hashtag inside Iran during the regime’s 40th anniversary. Today there are reports that indicate Iran’s economy is in recession. The rial has lost two-thirds of its value, the IMF predicts Iran’s economy will contract by as much as 3.6 percent in 2019, and inflation hit a record 40 percent in November, with inflation for goods at 60 percent. It is likely to be much higher than that today, but it is difficult to know because the Central Bank of Iran stopped publicly reporting inflation back in December. What is the CBI hiding?
More than 70 percent of the Iranian public see the economy as bad or very bad, and 60 percent say it is getting worse. The Iranian people know whom to blame for reduced wages, lost savings, and a reduction in their purchasing power. A 2018 poll conducted by IranPoll found that nearly two-thirds of Iranians blamed the regime for mismanagement and corruption and for the country’s economic woes. Less than a third blamed sanctions or international pressure for the current state of affairs.
This has not stopped Iran’s leaders from deflecting blame for their own corruption and mismanagement, but the Iranian people know that their government’s policies are the root cause of Iran’s worsening economy. There are already whispers throughout the Iranian medical community that the regime is hoarding drugs and other medical products that they can then sell at marked-up prices for profit. The Iranian people view their government with such skepticism because the regime has lost all credibility.
I’ve discussed at length how our pressure is depriving the Iranian regime of the resources it needs to sustain its tactical operations. I want to close briefly by discussing the broader strategic implications this has for the region. As we increase pressure, we are creating new opportunities for peace and stability in the Middle East.
First, our pressure is aimed at reversing Iran’s strategic gains. From roughly 2007 through 2016, Iran was able for a variety of reasons to deepen its support of proxies and entrench itself in regional conflicts without facing negative consequences. Iran does this by letting its proxies do the dying for them in regional wars. The proxies also give the regime plausible deniability, a 40-year fiction this administration refuses to honor. Since taking office, but especially in the last 11 months, this administration has countered Iran’s grand strategy. We are imposing costs on the regime for behaving as an outlaw expansionist regime. The regime is weaker today than when we took office two years ago. Its proxies are also weaker. Unless the regime demonstrates a change in policy and behavior, the financial challenges facing Tehran will mount.
Second, as we expose the regime’s corruption, economic mismanagement, human rights abuses, arbitrary detention of dual nationals, environmental destruction, and more, we are making the case to countries in the region that Iran is neither a model to emulate nor a partner to follow. Wherever it goes, conflict, misery, and suffering follow. Here are a few examples.
President Rouhani recently visited Iraq, where he seeks to bring – which he seeks to bring under Iranian control. We ask the Iraqi people to consider this: Given how Rouhani treats his own people, just imagine how he will treat you.
The effects of Iran’s meddling had been felt most sharply by the region’s innocent civilians. Men, women, and children are casualties of Iran’s dangerous expansionism almost every day. In Yemen, Iran has helped fuel a humanitarian catastrophe by backing the Houthis. Its support has prolonged the conflict well beyond what makes any sense at all.
In Syria, Iran has (inaudible) and abetted Assad’s brutal war machine as that machine has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions of civilians. Under the cover of the Syrian war, the IRGC is now trying to plant military roots in Syria and establish a new strategic base to threaten Syria’s neighbors such as Israel.
In Lebanon, the Iranian regime’s obsession with using Hizballah to provoke conflict with Lebanon’s neighbors threatens the safety of the Lebanese people. IRGC backing enables Hizballah to use murder, terrorism, and corruption to intimidate other Lebanese parties and communities.
In Iraq, I can announce today, based on declassified U.S. military reports, that Iran is responsible for the deaths of at least 608 American service members. This accounts for 17 percent of all deaths of U.S. personnel in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. This death toll is in addition to the many thousands of Iraqis killed by the IRGC’s proxies.
Third, rolling back Iran’s power projection will make it easier to address other regional challenges. Many intellectuals and diplomats over the years have argued that without progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there can be no progress on other conflicts. This has been referred to by some as linkage – the idea that resolving peace between Israel and the Palestinians was necessary to resolve other flash points.
However, the Middle East of today challenges this theory of linkage. In fact, what we are seeing more and more is a kind of reverse linkage; addressing the threats posed by Iran is a precursor to helping resolve other conflicts.
When we look at the challenges in the region, from the peace process to conflicts in Syria and Yemen, to violence in Bahrain and Iraq, Iran’s operations lie at or very near the heart of the problem. It supports Palestinian terror groups like Hamas that undermine the aspirations of the Palestinian people. It exports missiles and terrorist know-how to the Houthis in Yemen, who in turn threaten neighboring countries. It threatens the war – it perpetuates the war in Syria by propping up the Assad regime. Nowhere in the region are peace and prosperity compatible with Iranian influence and support.
The Islamic Republic is linked to these crises in a way that compounds suffering and prevents peace and stability from getting a better footing. Iran can no longer be allowed to play the role of chief spoiler. Our pressure is making it harder than ever before for them to do that.
Secretary Pompeo will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to press the regime to change its destructive policies for the benefit of peace in the region and for the sake of its own people, who are the longest-suffering victims of this regime.
As we have done from the start, we will continue to call on all nations to join us in restoring the basic demands on Iran to behave like a peaceful nation. This include – this includes ending its pursuit of nuclear weapons, stop testing and proliferating ballistic missiles, stop sponsoring terrorist proxies, and halt the arbitrary detention of dual citizens.
As Secretary Pompeo has said, we are prepared to end the principal components of every one of our sanctions against the regime. We are happy to re-establish full diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran. If Iran makes a fundamental shift, as outlined in the Secretary’s 12 demands, a lot of good things can happen between the people of Iran and the people of the United States. That includes supporting the modernization and reintegration of the Iranian economy into the international economic system.
—April 2, 2019, during a press briefing
A World Water Day Statement to Iran
On #WorldWaterDay, Iran is on the brink of environmental catastrophe. #Iran's corrupt leaders have gravely mismanaged Iran's water resources for 40 years, lining their pockets on useless projects instead of serving the interests of its citizens. Iranian people deserve better. pic.twitter.com/8JuDhmz7k8— Department of State (@StateDept) March 22, 2019
Nowruz (Persian New Year) Greeting to the Iranian People
#پیام_نوروزی #برایان_هوک به #مردم_ایران— USA darFarsi (@USAdarFarsi) March 23, 2019
برایان هوک، نماینده ویژه ایالات متحده در امور ایران در کنار سفره هفت سین وزارت خارجه #نوروز را به #ایرانیان شادباش می گوید pic.twitter.com/nrl0wm3Vmf
Address to the Iranian People from Iran’s Former Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Remarks on Iranian Missile Test
MR HOOK: The Iranian Government claims that its missile testing is purely defensive in nature. How exactly is the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism entitled to a claim of defense? In fact, Iran’s security concerns are entirely self-generated. Was a plot to bomb Paris defensive? Was the assassination attempt in Denmark defensive? Is smuggling missiles to the Houthis in Yemen to attack Saudi Arabia and the Emirates defensive? Is harboring al-Qaida defensive? Is smuggling heroin through Italy defensive? Is overthrowing the legitimate Government of Bahrain violently – is that defensive?
And so for the last 12 years, the UN Security Council has been telling the Iranian regime to stop testing and proliferating ballistic missiles, and Iran continues to defy the UN Security Council, which is acting like an outlaw regime. Iran’s continued testing and proliferation of ballistic missiles shows that the Iran deal has not moderated the Iranian regime as some had hoped. It was a mistake to exclude missiles from the Iran nuclear deal, and it is one of the principal reasons that the United States left it.
Let’s take a step back for just one minute. Iran’s defense needs would be entirely different if they had not decided to wage sectarian wars of choice for the last 39 years. It’s the Iranian regime’s foreign policy that has placed Iran into conflict with other nations. Iran today faces no natural threat from its Arab neighbors, Israel, or Afghanistan. Before the 1979 revolution, Iran enjoyed relations with these same neighbors. But today, Iran’s military is the largest in the region. Its revolutionary forces are present in nearly every neighboring nation. Its militias spread like a cancer, eroding stability and threatening peace and global trade in both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb, which allows them to choke the Suez Canal. So we condemn the launch, as have the Brits and others.
Just a few days ago, we unveiled new evidence of Iran’s missile proliferation. Three days later, they test-launched another medium-range missile ballistic missile. We have been warning the world for some time that we are accumulating risk of a regional conflict if we do not deter Iran’s missile testing and proliferation. Iran is on the wrong track, and our campaign of maximum economic pressure is designed to starve the regime of revenue it needs to test missiles and to proliferate missiles, for terrorism, conduct cyber attacks and make acts of maritime aggression and many human rights abuses. The Iranian people deserve a government that represents their interests and not just the interests of their violent and corrupt leaders.
QUESTION: What do you say about the fact that the UN resolution itself says it calls upon them to stop testing ballistic missiles?
MR HOOK: Refrain from – yeah. Well, it’s – for the last 12 years, the UN Security Council has been consistent in telling Iran to stop testing and proliferating ballistic missiles, and they’ve said that in various versions over 12 years. They have been consistent, and Iran is defying the council.
QUESTION: If I may, you just mentioned Yemen. Is the – the U.S. (inaudible) for an immediate ceasefire in Yemen (inaudible) to proceed. Now, is this (inaudible)?
MR HOOK: Well we are calling for an urgent ceasefire in Yemen. We also recognize the right of nations who are attacked by Iranian-backed Houthis to protect themselves. And so I think Secretary Mattis and Secretary Pompeo have done a good job of explaining the various parallel tracks that we are advancing in Yemen. The United States and the coalition have provided billions of aid to the people in Yemen who are suffering humanitarian catastrophe. Iran has provided soldiers and weapons and missiles and funding and training of the Houthis, hundreds of millions of dollars over the last few years to organize and train and equip the Houthis, and this war has gone on longer than makes any sense, because in part – large part – the Iranians have made the Houthis much more effective than they otherwise would be. So any -- …
QUESTION: To what end? What are you looking to do on this trip related to Iran?
MR HOOK: Well, we are – we would like to see – we would like to see the European Union move sanctions that target Iran’s missile program.
QUESTION: Brian, we’ve given several countries oil waivers, and I know we’ve talked about – you want to get those exports out of Iran to zero as quickly as possible. With the new missile tests, does that speed up that timeline?
MR HOOK: Well, we had to grant oil waivers to ensure that we did not increase the price of oil. Now that – in 2019 we expect a much better-supplied oil market, and that will put us in a much better position to accelerate the path to zero.
QUESTION: Everything you’ve said here is not new with the exception of this idea that you’re going to push on the Europeans to propose new sanctions. Is that it? I mean, you said there could be regional conflict.
MR HOOK: No, no, no. What – well, no. What is new is that we are responding to Iran’s claim that its missile testing is defensive in nature and that its missile inventory is defensive. It’s not defensive in nature. So I laid that out at the beginning.
QUESTION: What specifics can you get into about the nature of the missiles? I mean, are these nuclear-capable type of ballistic weapons?
MR HOOK: Yes. Iran has launched missiles that are capable of carrying multiple warheads, including a nuclear weapon.
QUESTION: Is there anything that you can tell us about the discussions with the Europeans? Because they’ve resisted so far cooperating with you on Iran and missiles. Are you hoping to get anything beyond more talks and more --
MR HOOK: I wouldn’t say that they have resisted cooperating. We have one difference of opinion with the E3 and it’s over the Iran nuclear – it’s on – over the Iran nuclear deal. We share the same threat assessment.
They – take a look at what Foreign Secretary Hunt said about the missile test. They all know that Iran is acting in defiance of the UN Security Council and their missiles are a threat to peace and security. The Europeans understand that fully and I believe that we are making progress toward getting a proposal tabled in Brussels that would designate the individuals and the entities that are facilitating Iran’s missile program. It is a grave and escalating threat. And nations around the world, not just Europe, need to do everything they can to be targeting Iran’s missile program.
QUESTION: What’s the nature of the concern among the Europeans that kind of stops them from being closer to your side on the sanctions efforts?
MR HOOK: Well, they did – the French did take actions. We’ve seen the French take actions against the bomb plot in Paris. Denmark’s taking action. So we are seeing – the Europeans are doing something.
QUESTION: Slowly --
MR HOOK: Yeah, and so – yes, I would say that they also see the expanding threat, and they also understand that over the last few years, Iran has expanded its threats to peace and security in a range of domains.
QUESTION: The proposal is looking at naming the people involved in the program with the Europeans and they do not necessarily have that (inaudible). What exactly would the proposal say? Would it be – is it – are you looking to identify the people responsible and this is exclusively about missiles or --
MR HOOK: Well, the – yeah, the United States has imposed sanctions on a number of individuals and entities who are supporting Iran’s missile program. We think those sanctions can be effective if more nations can also join us in that effort.
—Dec. 3, 2018, in a briefing in Belgium
Briefing on Iran's Transfer of Arms to Proxy Groups and Ongoing Missile Development
MR HOOK: In December of last year, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley stood here to highlight the dangers posed by Iran’s dangerous proliferation of missiles across the Middle East. She highlighted how Iran was illegally providing weapons to Houthi militants in Yemen. It was a clear violation of UN resolutions then, and it remains so today. She also spoke of the threat these weapons pose to peace and security and to the innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.
Today, the United States is unveiling new evidence of Iran’s ongoing missile proliferation. The Iranian threat is growing and we are accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to act. In the time since Ambassador Haley’s remarks, Iran’s support of the Houthi militants has deepened. Its backing of terrorist activities across the world has increased, and its efforts to undermine regional stability have expanded.
The inventory in this display has expanded since December. This is a function of Iran’s relentless commitment to put more weapons into the hands of even more of its proxies, regardless of the suffering. Iran has been prohibited by several UN resolutions from exporting arms for a decade. These restrictions were in place starting in 2006 under UN Security Council Resolution 1737 and 1747, which I helped to negotiate. The prohibitions have continued since 2015 under UN Resolution 2231. This display and the items we have added to it reveal an outlaw regime exporting arms as it pleases.
Today we are unveiling Iran’s Sayyad 2C surface-to-air missile, which you see behind me. This missile was designed and manufactured in Iran, and the writing in Farsi on its side translates as “the hunter missile.” The conspicuous Farsi markings is Iran’s way of saying they don’t mind being caught violating UN resolutions. The Sayyad 2C is one of two identical systems interdicted by Saudi Arabia in Yemen earlier this year. The Iranians wanted to deliver this to the Houthis, who would have used it to target coalition aircraft up to 46 miles away. Given the Houthis’ reckless use of other advanced weapons provided by the Iranians, these missiles pose a clear and present danger to civil aviation in the region.
We are also unveiling anti-tank guided missiles. On display in front of me are two of the three types of anti-tank guided missiles that Iran produces and transfers: the Toophan and the Tosan. One of the Toophan rockets that is newly added was seized in an arms cache aboard a dhow in the Arabian Sea. The other was found by Saudi Arabia during a raid in Yemen.
The Tosan rocket on display is also new, and is one of five that were seized in a stockpile by Saudi forces in Yemen. These missiles enhance the Houthis’ capabilities and further intensify the conflict in Yemen.
Fajr rockets have also been added to the display and are located next the anti-tank guided missiles. These weapons were recovered in Helmand, near Kandahar Air Field, by the Afghan National Army from the Taliban. Iran has been providing materiel support to the Taliban since at least 2007. These same rockets have been used by Hamas in the past.
To my left is a new unmanned aerial system: the Shahed 123. We have debris from a Shahed which was recovered by coalition forces in Afghanistan after it crashed, as well as Shahed components that were interdicted in Yemen in early 2018. This missile system is primarily designed to conduct covert reconnaissance and surveillance missions, potentially putting American and coalition forces at risk. There are several new small arms of Iranian origin included here, such as sniper rifles, RPGs, AK variants, and hand grenades. These have been provided to us by Bahrain. Iran gave these weapons to Shia militant groups to carry out attacks against the government. I would like to thank Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Hahmed Al Khalifa for his commitment to exposing the Iranian regime’s activities.
In 2016, senior Iran Revolutionary Guard commander Saeed Qassimi publicly called Bahrain an Iranian province and said Iran is a base, quote, “for the support of revolution in Bahrain.” In a microcosm, this is exactly how Iran destabilizes the Middle East. But the United States stands with Bahrain to protect its sovereignty, and we will continue to work together to identify and intercept arms shipments in the region. This ongoing collaboration with Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is critical to the safety of the region.
I want to also highlight the recovered pieces of an Iranian Qiam missile fired by the Houthis into Saudi Arabia, which Ambassador Haley unveiled last December. The missile’s intended target was the civilian airport in Riyadh, a G20 airport through which tens of thousands of people travel each day. Imagine a missile of this size and power hitting a civilian aircraft or terminal one at the airport.
The new weapons we are disclosing today illustrate the scale of Iran’s destructive role across the region. The same kind of rockets here today could tomorrow land in a public market in Kabul or an international airport. As the Bahraini victims of attacks carried out with some of the weapons here could tell you, the Iranian regime uses arms to export revolution, prolong crises, and inflict death and suffering. The tools of Tehran’s foreign policy are here before you today. Tehran is intent on increasing the lethality and reach of these weapons to deepen its presence throughout the region.
This is why it is especially important that we get the de-escalation of conflicts in places like Yemen right. Secretaries Pompeo and Mattis have called for a ceasefire in Yemen, and the United States is committed to the efforts led by UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths. Iran has no legitimate interest in Yemen, other than to expand its sphere of influence and to create a Shia corridor of control. Although Iran’s role in Yemen has been underreported by the media, there is no question Iran has intensified the humanitarian catastrophe and prolonged the conflict. Iran has been funding, arming, and training the Houthis, which has allowed them to continue to fight well beyond what would have made any sense at all.
The United States and our coalition partners have provided billions in aid to the Yemenis, while Iran has provided nothing but weapons and fighters. Just today Houthi rebels fired missiles into Saudi Arabia. This strike is an example of the destabilizing agenda the Houthis are pursuing in partnership with Iran. They act in this way even as UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths is exerting maximum effort with our full support to bring the parties together for talks.
In the months ahead, we must be careful not to affirm Iran’s role as a legitimate political actor in Yemen. The clerics in Tehran will exploit any opening to gain a foothold in Yemen, a place where it has no business being in to begin with. Historically, there has not been a religious connection between Iran’s Twelver Shiites and Yemen’s Houthis, who are Fiver Shiites. In fact, Iran’s religious authorities have long been dismissive of the Fiver Shiites.
Just imagine what Yemen would look like in the future with an entrenched and enduring Iranian presence. We already know how this movie ends, and we cannot watch a new version of Lebanese Hizballah slowly emerge in the Arabian Peninsula. Since the end of 2006, Iran has supplied Hizballah with thousands of precision rockets, missiles, and small arms. It now has more than 100,000 rockets or missiles in its stockpile. If Iran were allowed to operate with similar freedom in Yemen, we can expect the Lebanization of Yemen. The Houthis have launched Iranian-origin missiles at Riyadh, with an estimated range of 560 miles. Iran has funded the Houthis with hundreds of millions of dollars since the conflict broke out. With Iran’s ongoing help, the Houthi threat will grow as their capabilities steadily expand.
Iran could use such newfound influence as a power broker and arms dealer to threaten our allies and partners in the region and unravel the stability that we have worked so hard to achieve in the Gulf. It could also create challenges in the Bab al-Mandab Strait in much the same way Tehran leverages its proximity to the Strait of Hormuz. An estimated 4.5 million barrels of oil per day transits through the Bab al-Mandab, while about 17 million barrels a day flow through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has threatened repeatedly over many years to close the Strait of Hormuz. Give Iran a free hand in Yemen and it can threaten to close both straits and commit acts of maritime aggression with impunity. Just as we must constrain Iranian expansion in Syria, the Golan Heights, and in Iraq, we must also prevent Iran from entrenching itself in Yemen.
I want to now highlight the Iranian regime’s investment in missile testing and development. It is increasing. The regime’s pace of missile launches did not diminish after implementation of the Iran nuclear deal in January of 2016. Iran has conducted numerous ballistic missile launches and space launches since this time as it continues to prioritize missile development as a tool of revolution. We assess that in January of 2017, Iran launched a medium-range missile, believed to be the Khorramshahr. It can carry a payload of more than 500 kilograms and could be used to carry nuclear warheads. Its suspected range is over 1,200 miles, which is far enough to target some European capitals. Iran’s ongoing missile development puts Europe in its range.
Iran has the largest ballistic missile force in the region, with more than 10 ballistic missile systems either in its inventory or under development. Any environment where Iran is able to operate freely can become a forward-deployed missile base for such systems and for many other kinds of weapons that you see here today. This threatens Israel and other partners, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Just this month, rockets rained down on Israel from territory controlled by Iran’s Palestinian partner Hamas. In Lebanon, we have evidence that Iran is helping Hizballah build missile production facilities. In Iraq, credible reports indicate that Iran is transferring ballistic missiles to Shia militia groups. This comes as these militias carried out highly provocative attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Baghdad and Basra in September, which we know that Iran did nothing to stop.
Iran is also dumping cash and forces into conflict zones to support its proxies from the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula. It has extended $4.6 billion in lines of credit to the Assad regime, provided more than $100 million to Palestinian groups including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and manages as many as 10,000 Shia fighters in Syria, some of whom are children as young as 12 years old.
As the world strives toward peace and security in the Middle East, we are working to reverse advances made by Iran and its proxies over the last several years. In fact, we are using the full scope of our sanctions authorities to inflict real costs on Iran. In July of 2017, we sanctioned 18 key individuals and entities for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program. In January, the U.S. designated four additional entities. In May, we designated five Iranians for providing missile expertise to the Houthis. These individuals were also responsible for transferring weapons to Yemen on behalf of the Qods Force.
While we are sanctioning Iran’s missile activity and weapons transfers, our economic pressure is much broader. Earlier this month, the United States reimposed the remaining sanctions that were lifted by the Iran deal. This is the largest ever single-day action targeting the Iranian regime. Our sanctions went back into place on more than 700 individuals, entities, vessels, and aircraft. This sanctions campaign puts us in a much stronger position to be confronting the same threats that I have described to you today. Our maximum pressure campaign will continue until Iran – the Iranian regime – decides to change its destructive policies. The regime can change its policies, or it can continue to watch its economy crumble.
For 39 years, the Iranian regime has shaped events in the region through illegal weapons transfers, proxies, and terror – a deadly trifecta. President Trump has made it clear that the United States will no longer tolerate the status quo. We seek a new and comprehensive deal with Iran that addresses the full range of Iran’s destructive activities in the region. As Secretary Pompeo said in his speech announcing our new strategy in May, Iran must stop testing and proliferating missiles, stop launching and developing nuclear-capable missiles, and stop supporting militias in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Iran needs to start behaving like a normal country and surrender its title as the world’s number one sponsor of terrorism.
As the special representative for Iran, I have met with partners and allies across the globe to share the concerns that I have shared today and explain the purposes of our pressure campaign. Most of the countries I meet with share our assessment of the Iranian threat, and I invite any who remain on the fence to visit this weapons display to see the evidence for themselves. Delegations from nearly 70 countries have already visited here, and we welcome more.
Despite this clear evidence, not all countries are convinced of the need to take action. Too many remain on the sidelines, arguing that now is not the time to pressure the regime. But this approach has enabled – and will continue to enable – Tehran to expand its presence in the region and become a more destructive force in the Middle East, to say nothing of Europe. The current international environment has created unacceptably low expectations for the regime in Tehran. If, as some people argue, the demands of the United States for the Iranian regime seem too many, it is because Iran’s malign activities are too numerous. If our demands seem too unrealistic, it is because the world’s expectations are too low. We cannot simply admire the Iranian threat any longer.
The United States has a positive vision for the Middle East, where every state retains the right to defend itself. But no outlaw regime, like the one in Tehran, can freely undermine the sovereignty of other nations. This is not foreign policy; it is state-sponsored, revolutionary terrorism. The Middle East will be best served when an Iranian Government respects the rule of law, abides by fundamental standards and commitments, and rejects terrorism.
It is now up to the supreme leader to do something out of character and act in the interests of the Iranian people. Is it better to remain isolated from the world as an international pariah or to benefit and prosper from inclusion in the international community? It should not be a difficult choice. There is nothing noble about driving a great and proud nation into the ground.
The Iranian people have a rich legacy and a culture dating back to Cyrus the Great, and they deserve a government that represents their interests and not just the interests of their corrupt leaders. This room could just as easily been used to display the artifacts from Persian history or renowned contemporary artists from Iran, but instead we see only missiles, rockets, and small arms. The clerical regime in Iran has chosen this path, but the Iranian people are not destined to follow it. If Tehran changes its policies, a better future awaits the Iranian people.
History shows us clearly that America has no permanent enemies. Throughout our history, enemies torn apart by conflict often become the best allies united in peace, as Japan and others can attest. We hope for the same future with the Iranian people. The choice is now for their government to make. Thank you.
QUESTION: One of the missiles that you mentioned here was launched five days after Ambassador Haley gave her presentation last year. What benefit do you think there is of showing these weapons publicly, and how do you respond to critics who say this is simply a political stunt and propaganda that actually increases tensions in the region?
MR HOOK: I haven’t heard anybody say this is a political stunt. This is simply putting out in broad daylight Iran’s missiles and small arms and rockets and UAVs and drones. That missile right there landed right next to Riyadh’s international airport, and it’s very important for nations to see with their own eyes that this is a grave and escalating threat. We are one missile attack away from a regional conflict. These missiles – we’ve been very lucky – for the most part have not hit their intended target. But luck is not a strategy, and the international community needs to do more to get after the proliferation of Iran’s missiles.
The Iran nuclear deal has created a climate where so long as Iran is in compliance with a nonproliferation deal of modest gains and temporary benefits, that so long as Iran is in compliance with this deal, somehow they’re in compliance with all sorts of international norms and standards.
The fact of the matter is, is that during the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal, Iran has expanded its threats to peace and security in almost every category: terrorism, terror finance, cyber attacks, maritime aggression, human rights violations. And so we are now out of the deal and it gives us a great deal of freedom and leverage to address the entire range of Iran’s threats to peace and security.
And so our pressure campaign that the President and the Secretary have put in place really yield two very, very concrete benefits: One, it will starve the regime of the revenue it needs to destabilize the Middle East and terrorize other nations. We need to starve these militias of funding. The other thing it does is it creates pressure on the regime to come back to the negotiating table so that we can get a new and better deal that doesn’t just address the nuclear threat that Iran presents, but also addresses the entire range: the terrorism, the nuclear threat, the cyber aggression, maritime aggression, the entire range. And we are very confident that we have the right strategy with the right diplomacy in place.
QUESTION: Now that you’re showing us an expanded evidence of Iran involvement, what mechanism do you have to stop these weapons from reaching proxies, in particular the Houthis in Yemen? And what leverage do you have on allied countries like Iraq, for example? You just said that there’s weapons that goes through to the Shiite militias in Iraq, and Iraq is a close ally of the United States.
MR HOOK: Now that our sanctions are back in place, the President and the Secretary of State will be resolutely focused on sanctions enforcement, and we are doing everything we can to deter and discover sanctions evasion. All of our diplomatic posts in the region, especially in the Middle East and in Europe, are putting in place strategies to detect and to prevent sanctions evasion, and that includes the missile proliferation, the missile shipments that you described.
It also is very much going after the money. Eighty percent of Iran’s revenue comes from oil exports. We have taken over a million barrels of oil off of Iran’s export list and many more barrels will be coming off very soon. And so we have – our maximum economic pressure campaign is focused on the economics. We also need to be restoring deterrents. This display today helps educate people on this clear and present threat that we face. And we urge all nations, especially the European Union, to move missile sanctions through the European Union so that we can start managing the risk of a regional conflict through missile proliferation.
QUESTION: Two questions: First of all, are there more actions coming in the way towards the Iranian authorities to stop their malign activities? If you can go briefly over that, whether they are from Treasury or from the Pentagon. And what leverage do you have to convince others to join the campaign of maximum pressure against Iran? Thank you.
MR HOOK: Well, on the first question, we never give advance notice on our sanctions. That’s something which is held very closely until they’re announced. What I can say is that since we have reimposed our sanctions on November 5th, we have already done two rounds of designations targeting individuals and entities who are trying to evade sanctions, and that we worked very closely with Secretary Mnuchin at Treasury on these efforts. And so yes, there will be more sanctions. We have already done two rounds just since we’ve restored the sanctions lifted under the Iran nuclear deal.
In terms of leverage, I think we’ve been very successful so far with putting in place an economic pressure that is going to drive the Iranian economy into a place that’s going to really force the regime to decide: Is the cost-benefit of their revolutionary behavior in their favor? Our policy in the Middle East is to reverse the balance of power in favor of our friends and our partners. Iran has had a really good run over many years, partly enabled by the cover that the Iran nuclear deal provided.
And so I think now we are in a much better position with our regional partners, with the United States. We have had enormous cooperation from European companies. Over 100 major firms have announced that they are ending business in Iran and, if given the choice between doing business in the United States and doing business in Iran, it’s the fastest decision you’ll ever make as an executive. And so we have been very pleased with the progress we’ve made so far on our sanctions.
QUESTION: Can you explain a little bit about the timing of today’s presentation? Why now, why today? As you know, there’s obviously been a tremendous amount of criticism in the media recently about Saudi Arabia. Is this to try and sort of shift the narrative a bit, or can you just talk about why you’re doing this again? Thank you.
MR HOOK: Well, we’re doing it again because our inventory has expanded. That’s just the nature of this regime. As this regime continues its aggressive and revolutionary foreign policy, we interdict more and more equipment. And so at some point, we hope to have this room no longer build its inventory. We need to reduce the inventory here. And so it’s just a function of Iran’s campaign to export arms in violation of UN embargoes across the Middle East.
In terms of the timing, it’s – there isn’t anything tied to what’s happening in Saudi Arabia. The Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense testified yesterday before Congress, had a very fulsome discussion about Saudi Arabia. Secretary Pompeo published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal yesterday explaining our policy. And so today, of course it’s related. Many of the missiles here were interdicted by Saudi Arabia, which illustrates just how much of a threat it’s under and how much of a threat UAE and Bahrain and Israel are under because of these kinds of weapons, whether it’s in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, or Yemen. And we need to get serious about going after this stuff.
QUESTION: First I have a question, but I want to follow up on the AFP question first. To what extent the vote yesterday in the Senate to sort of stop the support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen hurt your efforts to curb these Iranian activities?
And my question is: You spoke about the risk accumulating if you fail to act. What would that look like? Would it look like a military strike at some point? And given that you have tried the sanctions and the maximum pressure, could anything short of a military strike against Iran stop Iran from continuing its proliferation?
MR HOOK: On the first question about Yemen, abandoning Yemen right now would do immense damage to U.S. national security interests and to those of our partners in the Middle East. Right now in Yemen we are carrying out three vital missions. We are trying to assist the coalition in fighting Iranian-backed Houthi fighters, we are decapitating al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, and we are promoting Americans – we are protecting Americans who are working in Saudi Arabia or transiting the strategic waterways around Yemen.
We definitely want to bolster the conditions for peace in Yemen. We have a number of goals which I would describe as working in parallel tracks. Secretary Mattis has talked about the need to build capacity of legitimate Yemeni security forces. We need to strengthen the defensive capabilities of our regional partners. We need to support our partners’ right to defend themselves against Houthi attacks supported by the Iranian regime. And at the same time, we are calling for an urgent end to the fighting, and we hope that all parties will attend the consultations next month in Sweden under the good offices of UN Special Representative Martin Griffiths.
What was the second part of your question?
QUESTION: The other question, you spoke about, if the risk is actually accumulating if you fail to act, would that take the form of a military strike? Is it – is the – going to war with Iran an option given that the sanctions and the maximum pressure policies have failed so far to curb Iran and to stop it from smuggling weapons to these militias?
MR HOOK: After the Shia militia attacks on our diplomatic facilities in Basra and Baghdad, the President put out a statement that promised swift and decisive action if any of our diplomatic facilities or diplomats are attacked or injured. And so we have been very clear with the Iranian regime that we will not hesitate to use military force when our interests are threatened. I think they understand that. I think they understand that very clearly. I think right now, while we have the military option on the table, our preference is to use all of the tools at our disposal diplomatically. And as I said earlier, being out of the Iran deal has given us a great deal of diplomatic freedom to address the full range of Iran’s threats.
And so we are working very closely with partners around the world. We have had road show teams from State and Treasury that have visited I think almost 40 countries now, and that’s helping to explain our sanctions regime and its purposes. And we’ve been very pleased with the progress that we’ve made so far. There’s a lot of work that remains to be done, and one of the messages that we’ve been consistently delivering is that preserving the Iran nuclear deal cannot come at the expense of regional stability, and just because Iran is in compliance with the deal does not mean that everything else is fine. And as we see here today and the missile here behind me, this is a grave and escalating threat that we must do more to address.
—Nov. 29, 2018, to the press
Briefing After the Reimposition of Sanctions
MR HOOK: Now that our sanctions on the Iranian regime have been reimposed, we want to alert nations of the risk of doing business with Iran’s shipping sector. If Iranian tankers make calls to your ports or transit through your waterways, this comes at great risk. The United States urges you to consider the advisory we are issuing today.
The sanctions that were reimposed on Monday include sanctions on Iran’s port operators as well as its energy shipping and shipbuilding sectors. We placed on our sanctions list Iran’s national maritime carrier, the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines, and its oil transport giant, the National Iranian Tanker Company. These sanctions are critical to our maximum pressure campaign. Iran’s energy sector accounts for up to 80 percent of the country’s income from exports. The regime uses this revenue to support its terrorist militias, fund missile proliferation, and sustain its revolutionary exploits that destabilize the Middle East.
We have also reimposed sanctions on the provision of underwriting services, insurance, and re-insurance. Knowingly providing these services to sanctioned Iranian shipping companies will result in the imposition of U.S. sanctions. As Iran’s maritime carriers and vessels are redesignated and lose access to insurance on the international market, they are likely to turn to self-insurance. We suspect they will use Iranian insurance providers such as Kish P&I. Should there be an accident involving an Iranian tanker, there is simply no way these Iranian insurance companies can cover the loss.
This is especially important for Iran’s crude oil tankers, which are usually insured for amounts of $1 billion or more. Oil spills and accidents involving tankers are extremely costly. The immediate costs associated with response and cleanup can range from hundreds of millions of dollars to billions of dollars. When litigation costs and penalties are added, the total liability is even greater. But the costs of these accidents extend well beyond the initial response and cleanup. Tanker spills can imperil fishing and maritime industries for generations, harm tourism, and create irreversible economic and environmental costs on communities and ecosystems.
From the Suez Canal to the Strait of Malacca and all chokepoints in between, Iranian tankers are now a floating liability. Countries, ports, and canal operators, and private firms should know they will be likely responsible for the costs of an accident involving a self-insured Iranian tanker.
We sincerely hope there will be no accidents, but accidents are a very real possibility given Iran’s record. Only 10 months ago in January, an oil tanker managed by the National Iranian Tanker Company collided with a vessel in the East China Sea. The tanker was carrying one million barrels of condensate. The tanker burned for one week and then sank. The collision led to the largest release of condensate ever and caused an oil spill the size of the city of Paris. As the cleanup continues, the liability for this will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Iranian insurance companies only covered a small portion of that vessel’s liability. The majority of the tanker’s value is covered by international insurers.
Now that our sanctions are back in place, these international insurers will no longer be in the risky business of covering Iran’s tankers. Self-insured Iranian tankers are a risk to the ports that permit them to dock, the canals that allow them to transit, and the boats that cross their path. This exposes the entire maritime shipping network to immense liability.
If entities continue to do business with Iran’s tankers, they may assume that Iranian insurers can and will absorb the full liability associated with the accident. This is a fantasy. There is little to gain by taking on so much risk for so little return. Just as concerning, entities who allow self-insured Iranian tankers to transit through their canals or dock in their ports may be facilitating Iran’s illicit activity.
Iran has supported the Assad regime in Syria by regularly shipping millions of barrels of Iranian crude to the country. Those entities who permit the transit of Iranian tankers may very well be enabling this activity. I have described very serious liability concerns, but all nations should also be aware of the safety standards and practices of Iran’s oil tankers.
There are increasing reports that Iranian tankers are switching off their AIS transponders at sea. These transponders are safety devices used for collision avoidance and navigation. They enable ships to see other ships and to communicate with coastal authorities. Under international maritime law, vessels have been required since 2004 to use them to broadcast their identity and location. Based on credible data, we now know that up to a dozen Iranian tankers have recently disabled their maritime transponders and have effectively gone dark. We should not be surprised that an outlaw regime also violates basic maritime law.
Turning off these transponders makes tankers harder to track and is a tactic that Iran has used in the past to evade sanctions. In 2012, a majority of vessels in the National Iranian Tanker Company’s fleet turned off their transponders in the run-up to the imposition of U.S. oil-related sanctions. This tactic is a maritime security threat. These transponders are designed to maximize visibility at sea and turning them off only increases risk of accidents and injuries.
Self-insured Iranian tankers engaging in unsafe behavior with many tons of crude oil onboard is courting environmental and financial disaster. Our strong message to any entity considering doing business with these Iranian tankers is to rethink your decision. Protect your port, protect your business, and promote maritime safety.
—Nov. 7, 2018, in a press briefing
Briefing with Special Representative Hook
QUESTION: Can you talk about kind of the broader efforts on trying to get Iran to behave like a normal regime? I mean, does that include kind of the Twitter messaging or social media messaging, or is it something more than that, more concrete about supporting opposition groups or protestors?
MR HOOK: The Iranian regime has historically not come to the negotiating table absent significant economic and diplomatic pressure. The reimposition of our sanctions are designed to do two things: deny the regime the revenue it needs to fund violent wars abroad, and also to change the cost-benefit analysis in our favor so that Iran decides to come back to the negotiating table.
The Ayatollah Khamenei has said that require hostility with the United States, which is the kind of thing that you expect to hear from a revolutionary regime. We have been very clear. Secretary Pompeo has been very clear that we have an ear open to what is possible. We very much want to begin work on a new and better deal to replace the insufficient Iran nuclear deal that the President left in May, and our campaign of maximum economic pressure is a critical tactic to achieve that goal.
QUESTION: But he’s [Secretary Pompeo] also talking about restoring democracy.
MR HOOK: The President, the Secretary of State, the Vice President, at all levels of the administration, have stood with the Iranian people and their aspirations for a better way of life. The Iranian people want a more representative government, a government that does not rob them blind, that supports their human rights, their economic rights, their freedom of expression, freedom of assembly. These are all rights that the United States wants for the Iranian people. We think they deserve a much better way of life, and Secretary Pompeo has repeatedly made remarks addressed to the Iranian people in support of their demands for reforms from this regime.
QUESTION: How is this escrow account that he talked about going to work, and how do you make sure that the Iranians are going to get basic needs fulfilled – medicine, food?
MR HOOK: The escrow accounts that are being created for those nations that need to continue importing Iranian oil deny Iran hard currency, and it denies Iran any revenue from oil sales. Any time Iran sells oil, that money goes into an escrow account in the importing nation’s bank, and Iran has to spend down that credit. We strongly encourage those nations to ensure that Iran spends that money on humanitarian purchases to benefit the Iranian people. The longest-suffering victims of the Iranian regime are the Iranian people. This regime uses fake companies disguised as humanitarian organizations to divert purchases that should go to food, medicine, and medical devices, and they use that to enrich the regime and support revolutionary activities overseas.
QUESTION: So you’re counting on countries like China to make sure that they don’t use money for those things?
MR HOOK: The United States will be monitoring these escrow accounts very closely. Unlike in prior administrations, we will ensure that the money is not spent on illicit activities, that there isn’t any leakage in these escrow accounts, and we will work closely with countries to encourage the purchase and – the sale and purchase of humanitarian goods to benefit the Iranian people. Our sanctions regime has very clear exceptions for the sale of food, medicine, and medical devices.
QUESTION: So for the countries that you say need to keep importing oil, do you foresee issuing these exemptions over and over again? Are you going to put an upper limit on how many times they’ll be renewed?
MR HOOK: Our goal remains getting countries to zero imports of Iranian oil. In 2019, our projections are that oil supply will exceed demand, and that creates a much better atmosphere for us to bring remaining nations to zero as quickly as possible.
QUESTION: So you’re not putting an upper limit on how – for how – how many times these exemptions will be renewed at this point?
MR HOOK: We are not looking to grant additional SREs at the end of the 180-day period. We are being very careful to advance our maximum economic pressure campaign without increasing the price of oil. Next year we anticipate a stronger oil supply coming online, and that will allow us to accelerate the path to zero.
QUESTION: On the humanitarian transaction, Europeans have expressed concern in the past weeks that even though there were exemptions to humanitarian goods and services, the financials mechanism were not safe enough, that you have to clarify what are the means by which the countries and entities can do those kind of transactions. Do you think that what you announced today clarifies this and that it’s safe to do humanitarian transactions with Iran?
MR HOOK: The Iranian regime has a history of creating front companies to divert the distribution of humanitarian goods. Financial institutions around the world know of Iran’s history of deceiving banks on the sale of humanitarian goods. The burden is on Iran to open up its dark economy so that banks around the world have more confidence that when they facilitate humanitarian transactions that the humanitarian goods will reach the Iranian people.
The United States is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance in the world. Every sanctions regime we have makes exceptions for food, medicine, and medical devices. That is, we have done our part; the Iranian regime needs to do its part by making those transactions possible in an open and transparent financial system.
QUESTION: Sounds like there’s not very many safe ways of trade – like, for pharmaceutical companies and medical companies.
MR HOOK: The Iranian regime makes it very difficult to facilitate the sale of humanitarian goods and services.
QUESTION: The European countries say that companies fear that if they sell those goods to Iran, they will be targeted by U.S. sanctions. So they ask you to say what are the safe channels to do that.
MR HOOK: The burden is not on the United States to identify the safe channels. The burden is on the Iranian regime to create a financial system that complies with international banking standards to facilitate the sale and provision of humanitarian goods and assistance.
QUESTION: Right, but I think that the point is that they are looking for some kind of, like, assurance --
MR HOOK: We have been – OFAC has given very clear guidance over many years --
QUESTION: That’s not what the Europeans say.
MR HOOK: We have done our part to permit the sale of humanitarian goods to Iran. That is our part. That is our role. Iran has a role to make these transactions possible. Banks do not have confidence in Iran’s banking system – often don’t have confidence in Iran’s banking system to facilitate those transactions. That’s Iran’s problem; it is not our problem.
QUESTION: But banks do not have confidence, the companies do not have confidence in Iran banks because they are subject to American sanctions from now on.
MR HOOK: That’s not true.
—Nov. 2, 2018, to the press
Remarks on the Creation of the Iran Action Group
MR HOOK: I’d like to thank the Secretary. In May, the Secretary announced our new Iran strategy to protect America’s national security, the security of our allies and partners, and to promote a brighter future for the Iranian people. And we have taken a comprehensive approach to Iran because the scope of Iranian malign activity is so wide-ranging, from its aspirations of nuclear weapons, its support for terrorism, its cyber activity, its proliferation of ballistic missiles, and much more. The Iran regime has been a force for instability and violence.
Our new strategy addresses all manifestations of the Iranian threat and the new Iran Action Group will be focused on implementing that strategy. We have an elite team of foreign affairs professionals here at the State Department and across the administration. The Iran Action Group will play a critical role in leading our efforts within the department and executing the President’s Iran strategy across the interagency.
The administration will also build – continue to build the broadest level of international support for our strategy. Just yesterday, I was in London, meeting with senior officials from Germany, France, and the United Kingdom for productive discussions on Iran. We will continue to build on those areas where we are in agreement with our allies and partners around the world and we will work to find consensus on those areas where we are not.
I’ve worked on Iran throughout my career in foreign policy, beginning in 2006 on the UN Security Council, serving as an advisor to UN Ambassador Bolton. I thank Secretary Pompeo for this opportunity and the confidence he has placed in me and my colleagues to execute the strategy.
QUESTION: You talk about an elite team. Can you tell us who else is part – or at least some of who else is going to be joining you? Two is what exactly is this – you envision this doing? Does it have any resemblance to the Future of Iraq Project that was initiated many years ago with respect to a neighbor of Iran? And then lastly, it has not gone unnoticed that this announcement is coming right at the 65th anniversary of the 1953 coup in Iran and has prompted lots of speculation about this being the formal group that is going to oversee some kind of – or try to oversee some kind of regime change. Can you dispel or confirm that speculation?
MR HOOK: Three questions, three brief answers. On number one: The Iran Action Group will launch with a core staff of several permanent personnel, and additional experts will be detailed from the department. The Secretary is committed to ensuring that the team has all necessary resources to do its job and to drive implementation of the new strategy. We want to be very closely synchronized with our allies and partners around the world. This team is committed to a strong, global effort to change the Iranian regime’s behavior.
QUESTION: But you don’t have any specific names that you can offer us at the moment?
MR HOOK: Not yet. For now we have a team that’s assembled, and in time we’ll be happy to talk about it.
MR HOOK: Number two: No connection. Number three: Pure coincidence.
QUESTION: Do you believe that the U.S. should be talking to Iran right now? Is it the time? And is that going to be part of your brief, to try to get some kind of negotiation going and some direct talks with Tehran?
MR HOOK: Well, if the Iranian regime demonstrates a commitment to make fundamental changes in its behavior, then the President is prepared to engage in dialogue in order to find solutions. But the sanctions relief, the reestablishment of full diplomatic and commercial relations with the United States, and economic cooperation with the United States can only begin after we see that the Iranian regime is serious about changing its behavior.
And in the Secretary’s speech in May, he outlined 12 requirements. These are the kinds of things that we would expect any normal nation to do. And a lot of our work is going to be built around advancing those 12 areas – mostly around nukes, terrorism, and the detention of American citizens arbitrarily detained.
QUESTION: I’m wondering how you intend to make this a multilateral effort, given the fact that this administration has imposed tariffs on many of the countries that you need as partners and is re-imposing sanctions on companies that are doing business that’s allowed under the JCPOA.
MR HOOK: No. Well, the purpose of the sanctions is simply to deny the Iranian regime revenues to finance terrorism. That’s the purpose of maximum economic pressure. The point is not to create any rifts with other nations. But when you look at the kind of money that Iran provides to Assad and to Shia militias, to Lebanese Hizballah, it’s billions and billions of dollars. And we need to get at drying up those revenue streams. And so that is the purpose of our maximum economic pressure campaign.
We have had teams from the State Department and the Treasury Department who’ve now visited 24 countries in most regions of the world. That work will continue in the coming months. And we have very good discussions with allies around the world, because when you look at the range of Iranian threats, especially around missiles and cyber, maritime aggression, terrorism, these are concerns of other nations. The United States is not alone in that regard. And I find that when we sit down and talk with other nations there are shared interests that we’re able to pursue and we’ll continue doing it.
QUESTION: Can you explain how you work with the quote “regime” when it’s evidenced this week by the Ayatollah’s speech criticizing Rouhani for even dealing with the United States and negotiating the nuclear deal? This is obviously not the same as dealing with North Korea, dealing with Moscow. This is a divided political system, and the repercussions of whatever may happen have to be dealt with accordingly. And so how does – how do you expect, quote, “the regime” to change when there’s so many disparate political forces, especially to --
MR HOOK: The burden is on the Iranian regime to change its behavior. The President has made clear that he is prepared to engage in dialogue with the regime. We have made it very clear about the kind of normal behavior that we would like to see from Iran. But as for the internal divisions within the regime and whether they want to talk to us, that’s up to them. You’d have to ask them.
QUESTION: But don’t you think that the policy – the withdrawal from the nuclear deal and other policies – are actually making it more difficult to deal with President Rouhani because of criticism that he dealt with you in the first place – not you, but the previous administration?
MR HOOK: The President decided to leave the Iran deal because it was a bad deal, and it didn’t address the totality of Iranian threats – the sunset provisions, the weak inspections regime, the absence of ICBMs in the deal. And so the President makes decisions based on advancing America’s national security interest. The Iran deal, as we inherited it, did not do that sufficiently. It did not address the broad range of Iranian threats. And now that we are out of the deal, we have a great – a lot more diplomatic freedom to pursue the entire range of Iran’s threats.
QUESTION: Just a couple of weeks ago there was all this talk about meeting with Iran without preconditions. So can you just clarify this now? You mention that Iran first needs to show that it’s serious. Is that right? Before you will engage Iran they need to do something to show that they’re serious? Like, what is the precondition, if any?
MR HOOK: The Secretary has presented 12 areas where Iran needs to change its behavior. That is our strategy. And we have launched a campaign of maximum economic pressure and diplomatic isolation of Iran in order to advance those 12 requirements. The President has also said that he is prepared to talk with the Iranian regime, and those two things occur in a parallel track.
QUESTION: So do they need – but before that happens, Iran needs to show that they are serious about --
MR HOOK: I’ve said everything I can on the subject. These proceed in parallel tracks.
QUESTION: So China has said that they don’t plan to cut oil imports. In fact, they might even increase them. So I was wondering, what is your strategy as part of this group towards China? What kind of measures could you take to get China to comply? Or will you address – will you do anything to sanction them, I guess, if they continue to import oil from Iran or increase imports?
MR HOOK: Well, our goal is to reduce every country’s import of Iranian oil to zero by November 4th, and we are prepared to work with countries that are reducing their imports on a case-by-case basis. As you know, those sanctions will come into effect on November 5th. Those will include sanctions on Iran’s energy sector, transactions by foreign financial institutions with the Central Bank of Iran, Iran’s shipping and shipbuilding sectors, among others. And the United States certainly hopes for full compliance by all nations in terms of not risking the threat of U.S. secondary sanctions if they continue with those transactions.
MR HOOK: We can do one more.
QUESTION: Do you see other countries are in risk of violating U.S. financial sanctions?
MR HOOK: In our sanctions regime, yes, we will – we are prepared to impose secondary sanctions on regimes – I’m sorry, on other governments that continue this sort of trade with Iran.